A Generational Fable

So, the candidate of your choice lost in the 2016 presidential election? Judging from some reactions – e.g., see college campuses – one might think that the apocalypse is near, that no greater calamity has ever occurred.  To see what history might say, let’s follow the fictitious Vespucci family through four generations.  (Note: If some of the sequential synchronicity is a bit off… work with me here.)

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Abel
— Generation #1
Abel Vespucci, a white male*, is born in the 1890’s.  His youth is a time of societal optimism.  U.S. industry is booming and the country is emerging as a player on the world stage after the Spanish-American War.  Then, as a young man, Abel’s sense of comfort is shattered as he finds himself headed to Europe to “make the world safe for democracy.”  World War I was a ghastly, brutal affair featuring trench warfare and mustard gas.  10 Million soldiers die… on each side. Another 10 Million perished from disease, starvation, and assorted rebellious skirmishes.  The United States, late-comers to the war, don’t fare as badly with “only” 50,000 deaths. (Heck, for perspective, there was one battle where the Brits lost 20,000… in a single day.)  Beyond the heartbreak of some of the casualties, Abel’s family and friends felt the financial belt-tightening effects of the government’s national rationing strategy.

* [Had Abel been African-American, his outlook would have been far less rosy. On average, there were between 50 and 100 lynchings per year during this period. (Sad to say that this was an improvement over the 1890s when the annual average was well over 100.) This era also marked the second emergence of the Ku Klux Klan which utilized a strategy of “100% Americanism,” a campaign of terror especially focused on Jews and Catholics in addition to African-Americans.]

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Baker – Generation #2
Abel comes home from WWI, marries, and has a son named Baker.  After a bit of post-war boom, all hell breaks out.  First, the family plunges into the nationwide despair of the Great Depression. Some people lost it all, transitioning from “riches to rags” overnight.  On a separate (but definitely connected) front, those living in states that would come to be known in the 21st Century as “flyover,” see whole farms evaporate by the hundreds into a gigantic Dust Bowl.  Meanwhile, if you were African-American, you don’t need to be told that the Jim Crow doctrine of “separate but equal” was heavy on the former and basically non-existent on the latter. Newspapers carried stories of a rising leader in “I-thought-we-were-done-with-that-place” Germany with some troubling ideas about a master race.  On “a date which will live in infamy,” the Japanese bomb an unsuspecting U.S. military base in Hawaii.  Baker enlists and wonders, Am I headed to Japan or Europe? A few years later, in June of 1944, he storms the beaches of Normandy, kicking off a 6-week battle that left 425,000 Allied and German troops dead, injured, or missing.  He survives and returns home.  A half-century later, a prominent news reporter writes a book about Baker and his contemporaries. He titles it The Greatest Generation.

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Charlie – Generation #3
Baker marries and has a son named Charlie. With Little League baseball, a Roy Rogers lunch box, and black & white (actually, very little of the former and a whole lot of the latter) TV, Charlie is loving life. And then an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” is rudely interrupted with a shocking piece of news: The President has just been shot and killed in broad daylight! As time marches on, seemingly every other TV program has a “We interrupt this program” message.  There are more assassinations. There are terrible racial clashes: dogs and firehoses being turned on African-American protestors, white civil rights volunteers disappearing.  (There is also an outrageously energetic and talented singer who seems to rise above it all with a song defiantly titled “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!”)

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There are daily reports about a war in Southeast Asia of undetermined origin.  With no Pearl Harbor and no Hitler provoking our placement of troops there, Charlie wonders, Why are we even in Vietnam anyway? As a high school senior, Charlie dutifully registers for the draft. He draws a low (i.e., bad) draft number.  He burns his draft card on the Boston Common. He has the grades and the money to get a college deferment. He knows guys who are less fortunate. They go over there. Some don’t come back. Some of the ones who do come back don’t seem quite right. To get away from it all, Charlie goes to a three-day music festival in upstate New York.  To the sounds of an African-American guitarist’s highly unconventional rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”, his eyes lock with those of Clara.

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 Delilah – Generation #4
Charlie and Clara move in together, living many years of unwedded bliss.  Late in the game they adopt a baby daughter named Delilah.  They home school her.  They purchase a dreaded minivan which Clara uses to transport Delilah and her friends to soccer games.  Clara lets them crank up the radio when #1 hit song “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child comes over the air waves.  Then the announcer comes over the radio and Charlie’s whole assassination concept is magnified a hundredfold by the unthinkable: a hijacker (a word that neither Abel nor Baker would even comprehend) has intentionally steered a jet full of passengers into the side of the World Trade Center.  They get home. Clara slams on the brakes, bounds into the house, turns on CNN, and watches as… a second plane flies into the second tower.  She stays with the broadcast until both towers crumble to the ground.  Clara and Delilah sit in silence and wonder: So, what happens now?

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Fifteen years later, against all odds and/or predictions and without a majority of the popular vote, Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. By virtue of that fact, debates about the suitability of the electoral college notwithstanding, a lot of people are happy with that. By virtue of the irony inherent in the fact that his opponent won the popular vote, even more people are unhappy.  On the day after, the news media featured several stories of distraught students and teachers at some of the nation’s most elite and respected institutions of higher learning.  Some communicated a picture of overly entitled young adults being coddled by administrators gone soft with their expectations.  I don’t know enough to comment definitively on that, but I will conclude with three brief points:

1) The current college aged generation’s share of tough and trying times is no tougher than the previous four depicted.

2) Just as Abel, Baker, Charlie, and Delilah dug down and found a way through, this generation can (and must) dig down and do likewise.

3) Returning to our colleges: Dial down your academic and intellectual factors and dial up the resilience and character factors. Having been engaged in a running feud with various college admissions departments for forty years regarding this topic, I propose an experiment for the Ivy League schools, specifically.  (Oh, all right, the Stanfords, Rices, Dukes, Vanderbilts, and U. Chicagos are more than welcome to join in.)  Since your rejection letters claim annually that you deny thousands of applicants who could do the work, simply set aside 100 slots for applicants in that category and admit those who have demonstrated the most persistence and resilience.  (And before you say that’s too subjective… For the past half-century you have been perfectly willing to establish and act upon a working definition of intelligence, one that is both decidedly narrow and “unmultiple.”)  Don’t even tell those 100 the reason they have been admitted. Just keep an eye on them and see what they do, both at school and beyond.  I’m betting you’ll like the outcome.  I’m also betting that if you demand, really demand, those qualities, this generation, like those before will deliver on them.

And I’m also betting that American humorist Kin Hubbard (1868-1930) will turn out to be right: “I’ll say this for adversity: people seem to be able to stand it. And that’s more than I can say for prosperity.”

Onward, Malcolm Gauld

Jumper Cables & Civil Entrepreneurialism

Hyde Student: “So, Mr. Gauld, what are your thoughts on the election?”

Me: Hmmm… This is problematic. I have opinions.  I taught U. S. History and government for years. (Hey, that’s partly why this kid is asking me in the first place.) She’s interested; I’m interested… But…

While I enjoy talking politics with students, I do not want to unduly influence the processing of their political beliefs, some of whom are exercising their right to vote for the very first time. I tend to keep them guessing as to my political views, sometimes arguing outrageous contrarian positions just to keep them on their toes.  (Hey, messing with teenagers is one of the best things about this gig!)  So, I tend to hold back.

This fall, I did comment on the “Do-I-Stand-or-Not?” national anthem controversy sparked by San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick. I spoke of my upbringing by a mother who lost her father and two brothers in WWII, of the effect that a past trip to Gettysburg had on me, and of a recent trip to Normandy with my sisters and WWII veteran father.

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I made it clear that I disagreed with Mr. Kaepernick but respected his right to his decision. After stating that I will always stand during the anthem, I challenged them: “Whatever you decide to do, make an informed decision.”  Then I threw some “teach” at them: “So, before you decide, come up with three good reasons to stand and three good reasons not to.”

Turning to the election, I’m still in pre-synthesis mode. Like most of the country, I was stunned by the outcome. A little over a year ago when he was among 17 Republican contenders for the red side’s nomination, I gave him zero chance for repping the GOP, to say nothing of winning the whole thing.

My quick take: The guy picked the whole country’s pocket while we were looking to “The Situation Room” to tell us what was going to happen. I mean, for anyone who doubts that truth is stranger than fiction, I’ve got two words for you: President. Trump.

In the ongoing quest to try to make sense of it all, I’ve come up with four half-baked conclusions.

1.  How Could This Happen?
The day after the election, NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote an interesting piece called “Absorbing the Impossible” (11/9) in which she calls upon her brother, a Republican, to explain his support of Trump. At one point she quotes a sentence in an article in The Atlantic by Salena Vito: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Yup.

A few days after the election, in the 11/11 New York Times, two well-known standard-bearers from opposite sides of the blue-red line weighed in with uncannily similar messages. In “The View from Trump Tower,” David Brooks (he of the Red persuasion) wrote:

Populism of the Trump/Le Pen/Brexit variety has always been a warning sign, a warning sign that there is some deeper dysfunction in our economic, social and cultural systems. If you want to take that warning sign and dismiss it as simple bigotry, you’re never going to pause to understand what’s going on and you will never know how to constructively respond.

In “Where the Democrats Go from Here,” Blue Man Group hero Bernie Sanders concurs:

Donald J. Trump won the White House because his campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel… I am saddened, but not surprised, by the outcome. It is no shock to me that millions of people who voted for Mr. Trump did so because they are sick and tired of the economic, political and media status quo.

Yup and Yup.

2.  The New Ivory Tower
For most of my life, “Ivory Tower” has meant “elite university.” Somewhere in recent history the media usurped the distinction. This week I spent some time perusing pre-November 8 on-line editorials and headlines about the presidential race.  There’s a discernible smugness in the mainline press regarding the assumption of the inevitability of a Clinton victory.  While the liberal standard bearers support her, their focus is clearly on how bad he is as opposed to how great she would be.  Some of that was due to Trump’s A.B.C. approach. (See the photo below from Glengarry Glen Ross featuring a younger version of our current #1 Donald Trump impersonator.) The man is always on offense.  Everyone around him starts back-pedaling.

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Like him or not, Trump was a master at making the whole thing about him. He was on the screen all the time. His incessant around-the-clock tweeting, while his opponents were struggling to remember their log-in passwords, clearly influenced the outcome. I’m thinking that Trump won the “dual-surfer” vote: Those with one eye on social media and the other scanning through their TV channels in mute mode.  They saw an awful lot of The Donald.  (And I’m guessing they were out of their chairs fetching chips and drinks during Hillary’s commercials.)

Arriving on the scene in 1980, CNN was a force of disruptive innovation. The idea of 24-hour news was both novel and exciting.  Then came the imitative competitors.  Then came the Internet.  CNN seemed to lose its footing during the mid-90s when it became “The All OJ All The Time” Network.  Since then, it seems to have been a bit unsure of its news vs. entertainment balance.  The Donald was able to exploit this uncertainty for his own gain.

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3.  Facebook and Closet Voters
As of this writing, I’ve got 1,276 Facebook friends with the largest grouping (by far) being former students and their parents. (Hey, you don’t get rich in my profession but there are other compensatory upsides!) For me, Facebook has evolved into an awesome address book and a way to easily share casual fun and friendship with people I care about. I read social and political commentary with interest but tend to refrain from joining in.  (Full Disclosure: As I write, I wonder: Do I post the link to this piece?  Hmmm…)

Heading into the election, it seemed obvious that a decisive majority of my Facebook friends would be voting for Hillary. For one, most of the post-nominee selection political posts I saw were decidedly in her camp. For another, not only were pro-Trump posts in a minority, those who posted them tended to receive quick reactions, and I’m not talking about the “Like” button. An objective onlooker to my Facebook page might well have concluded that it ain’t all that easy being a Trump supporter.

While we’ll never know just how many Trump supporters simply kept their secret to themselves until they stepped into the voting booth, there were clearly a lot more than anyone – and that includes all the so-called experts – would have predicted. Having lived thru Goldwater v. LBJ, Nixon v. McGovern, Reagan v. Carter, and Bush II v. Gore, I believe I’m on safe ground in saying that this race took emotional divisiveness to new heights… er, depths.

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4.  As Maine Goes?
In the NY Times series This Land Is Your Land – Reflections from Trump’s America there is a piece titled “A State That is of Two Minds” in which Michael Paterniti tries to make sense of Maine’s status as the only state in the union to split its electoral votes – 3 to Clinton; 1 to Trump – between the 2 candidates. (To inject some historical perspective here, the rock-ribbed Republican Maine of my youth has voted Democratic in the last six elections.) He writes of taking a drive from Portland (Maine’s largest city = 76% for Clinton) up to rural Trump-supporting northern towns like Madison, Norridgewock, Skowhegan, and… Clinton (lol).

Paterniti’s conversation with a Bangor minister who began the race as a supporter of “Brother Bernie” (his words) and wound up voting for Trump was telling. The son of a Millinocket (a once booming paper town whose mills have vanished) union leader, he feels that agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), both signed by Democratic presidents, have amounted to harsh betrayals of the interests of blue-collar Democrats.  While this minister had his problems with Trump, he simply wasn’t going to vote for anyone who wouldn’t denounce NAFTA and TPP.  (Note: If you’re not able to visit the aforementioned towns, re-read this paragraph with Springsteen’s “Your Hometown” playing in the background.)

Many of those disgusted with the notion of anyone voting for Trump have lodged charges of racism and bigotry. Might apply to some, but I just don’t get that sense from the Bangor minister or those other northern Mainers who threw in with Trump. Last week in a Boston Globe piece titled “The Idea that America ‘Doesn’t Talk About’ Racism is Absurd,” Columbia professor James McWhorter writes:

The way we use the word “racism’’ has become so imprecise, abusive, and even antithetical to genuine activism that change is worth addressing. More to the point, it widens the cultural divide between the elites and the people too often breezily termed the ones “out there.’’

Maine humorist Tim Sample has a quip that goes something like this: “Maine is elementally pragmatic. Maine people don’t care much about your race, religion, or what you do in the bedroom. We just want to know, do you have jumper cables and will you stop?”  (Fun Fact: Tim attended Hyde in the late 60’s.)  The last I heard, Maine is the least racially diverse state in our nation.  That may be, but its people embody a work ethic and sense of fairness that complemented significantly Laura’s and my efforts to raise three children here. (To witness these qualities in action, check out HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel‘s inspiring program on the Lewiston H.S. boy’s soccer team, a squad composed of teenagers from Somalia, Kenya, Congo, Germany, Turkey, and the United States.)

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While I was initially a-/bemused by Mr. Trump’s candidacy, he lost me for good with his disrespectful comments about John McCain’s heroic behavior as a Vietnam POW. While he said that he wanted his heroes to not be caught, I realized I wanted presidents with more civility than he was offering. Of course, it never occurred to me that he would ever actually be The President.  Last Saturday night, Dave Chappelle, as only he could, stated a willingness to give Trump a chance.  I’m doing likewise.  My highest hope is that Mr. Trump will spark a new era of entrepreneurialism that I believe is desperately needed in our economic and social fabric.  My worst fear is that his civility, or lack thereof, will sink to depths that will cause our national morale to fall to a level that will make Jimmy Carter’s 1979 Crisis of Confidence/“malaise” speech look like the good old days.  (And you students who don’t get that last point… Google it!)

Onward, Malcolm Gauld

 

See At All Costs

Life Inside AAU Basketball

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If you work with or care about kids — and anyone who would say “no” to the latter probably isn’t a reader of this blog — check out the documentary At All Costs – Life Inside AAU basketball.  While the film delves deeply into an insider’s view of the world of high stakes youth basketball, one need not be a basketball fan to become captivated by the story it tells.

As far as basketball is concerned, this is about what happens to the best of the best. These kids and their parents harbor dreams of playing big time college ball and then moving on to the pros. Competitive AAU basketball has become a year-round enterprise, with particular emphasis on the summer months. It has essentially relegated traditional high school ball to superfluous status.

The film portrays all sides of the topic it covers. There are well-meaning adults who care deeply about these kids — e.g., The Compton Magic.  There are the stereotypical parasites who use these kids for their own financial gain. There are the kids themselves (and their parents) who sometimes struggle to distinguish between the two motivations.

While “Amateur” may be the first word in AAU, the viewer quickly sees that there is a great deal of money involved in this whole scene. It ain’t cheap to jet around the country week after week to compete in just the right the tournaments, the ones that draw the biggest name college coaches. These costs tend to be met by the major sneaker companies — Adidas, Nike, Under Armour, etc. — who insist on a level of brand loyalty that brings to mind gang affiliation.

As an educator who continues to hold up the banner of the 3-sport athlete, my assumptions were challenged. That’s what a good documentary is supposed to do.  See At All Costs. As a teaser, here’s the trailer:

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld

Bad for Business

Our political system of popular elections rests upon the simple hope that when we go into that voting booth, we will give our greatest consideration to the common good.  At the same time, we cannot help but try to further our own best interests or those of our family, our hometown, or our home state.  It is also only natural to consider the implications for our respective businesses.

When it comes to the latter, I’m in the character education business.  Although I’ve spent my career in the category of schools known as “college preparatory,” I care a lot more about what kind of people my students will turn out to be at 30 than I do about where they go to college.  Suffice it to say that I see a lot of stuff going on out there right now in our culture that is bad for business.

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Take the most recent Super Bowl, for example.  Sports talk shows buzzed with passionate punditry concerning Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton’s uncooperative attitude and demeanor during the post-game press conference following his heavily favored team’s decisive loss to the Denver Broncos.  Strong opinions were expressed both pro and con.  While something tells me that Cam’s going to see a few more Super Bowl appearances in his future, I indeed call him out for his post-game performance because… it’s bad for business.

I can’t shake the worry about how his attitude and demeanor appeared to kids across the world watching at home and how it might inform their future behavior.

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Staying with sports, years ago, Charles Barkley, a basketball player with an unparalleled over-achieving work ethic, caused a stir in a Nike commercial when he announced, “I am not a role model…just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

I appreciated that Sir Charles may have been trying to challenge parents to step up their own games a bit.  Fair enough.  However, his comments were… bad for business.

Prospects for success in my particular business are enhanced significantly when mothers and fathers do the best job they can and pro athletes, music and movie stars give consideration to how they might support these parental efforts as role models.  I didn’t always feel this way.

When I began teaching in the mid-70s, I was pretty full of myself, believing that I was capable of counterbalancing any dysfunction that might exist in my students’ homes.  I also figured that I could prevent them from being sucked into the various undue influences that might barrage them from the culture at large.  By mid-career, I had abandoned this view and had fully embraced a new one: When you put great teaching up against bad parenting, bad parenting will almost always win.

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Then, in the early ‘90s, First Lady Hillary Clinton championed the sensible idea that “It takes a village.” As compelling as this idea immediately sounded, I also realized that when you mix great parenting with a bad village, the village might well win out in the end.  I still thought Hillary was right, but as Thomas Lickona writes in his book Character Matters, quoting educator Chip Wood, “There is a prior question: What does it take to raise a village?”  bad for biz village 2

For these reasons, suffice it to say that the behavior of our Republican politicians during the campaign for the 2016 presidential election has been nothing short of appalling.  To qualify this opinion, I note that I have no horse in this race.  Since turning 18, I have spent at least a decade as a member of each of the two major parties and have been an independent for even longer.  However, when Donald Trump made the outrageous statement criticizing John McCain’s otherworldly heroic tenure as a prisoner of war during Vietnam – “I like my heroes not to be caught.” – I realized right then and there that I like my politicians to have more civility than I have seen in recent months.

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Maybe you have seen this cartoon circulating around the Internet. bad for biz cartoon

That pretty much sums up my feeling about the debates.  Again, it’s bad for business.

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Contrast this with a story I heard in the ‘80s, I believe on an NPR broadcast interview with writer James Fallows.  Two businessmen – one American, one Japanese – were standing at a Tokyo crosswalk, facing a “Do Not Walk” message with no cars coming in any direction.  Everyone stood motionless on the corner, waiting patiently for the light to change.  The American businessman said to his Japanese counterpart, “This is fascinating and impressive!  If we were in New York, no one would wait!  Everyone would simply scurry across the street.  It is amazing that all of these people just wait.” Thereupon the Japanese businessman replied simply, “A child may be watching.”

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Sound hopelessly naïve and idealistic?  Maybe, but it’s something to shoot for.  And one thing’s for sure: It would be good… actually, make that awesome… for business.

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld

5 Things to Consider When Applying to College

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A career spent watching 1000s of kids head off to college led me to enough conclusions to write two books on the subject.  The first, College Success Guaranteed (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), offers 5 rules to help college-bound students actualize their executive functions. (Can you tell I taught history for a couple of decades?)

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Here’s a past post on the subject:

http://www.hyde.edu/2014/04/11/malcolms-blog/csg-1-0-overview/

The sequel, College Success Guaranteed 2.0 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), follows with 5 Rules specifically designed to help the parents of these kids step aside, let go, and actually let them go to college…:-)…:

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Here’s a post on that one, as well:

http://www.hyde.edu/2014/04/16/malcolms-blog/csg-2-0-overview/

Each spring I speak to audiences of high school seniors and their parents in hopes of starting them off on the right foot.  I choose this time of year because I’d rather not compete with the anxiety that has come to overwhelm far too many kids and families during the application process. (I get a kick out of asking, “If you’re getting this worked up over the whole thing, what are you going to do when something that is actually  important presents itself in your lives?”)  Anyway…

Someone recently asked, “What would you say to students and families who are, in fact , immersed in that process?”  Fair enough.  In the interest of consistency, here are 5 rules… er… factors for you to consider:

1)     Don’t over-apply (i.e., too many applications).  The folks in our college counseling departments at Hyde tell me that they generally recommend that students hold their number of applications at the high end of single digits.  One officer said to me, “If a student applies to more than 10 colleges, I question him or her as to whether enough careful research has been put into developing the list.” However, that doesn’t mean that everyone follows our guidance.  In fact, we’ve seen kids who have applied to more than 20.  (And no, I’m not exaggerating for effect.)

2)     If you don’t know the 6-year graduation rates of the schools you’re considering, perhaps you should. A school with a high graduation rate – e.g., 70% or higher – may well offer a more productive environment that might well have a positive impact on your behavior.   There are a bunch of web sites offering these statistics.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good one:

http://collegecompletion.chronicle.com/

3)     Size and Geography – When I was applying to schools, I was asked three fairly timeless questions: 1) What size of school would you prefer? 2) What geographical region of the country most appeals to you? 3) Do you want to be in, near, or far away from a major city?  Forty-five years later, I ask kids these same questions. A few moments spent pondering them might well help you narrow down your choices.

4)     Know thyself.  As I write in College Success Guaranteed, Man is the only animal in the forest that bullshits himself.  Do you know… really know… the environment best suited to your highest academic performance and most productive social life.  How do you know you know?
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5)  When all is said and done, good luck, but remember, whatever they decide — up or down — says a little about you and a whole lot about them.  Never let your self-confidence be determined according to others’ assessment of your worthiness.  That decision is yours… and yours alone.

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld