You can’t outsource consequences

In 2012, as I was preparing to self-publish version 1.0 of If the U Fits, I hired an outside copyeditor to proofread the manuscript. I wanted to make sure the book I’d spent the last year writing was typo-free. And it was important enough to pay a professional to make sure the job was done right.

Unfortunately, the job was not done right. I discovered only after the book had already been published that the editor had missed dozens of typos. I was angry, I was embarrassed, and I felt stupid for paying far too much money to—and putting far too much trust in—someone who clearly hadn’t earned it.

But as much as the typos may not have been my fault, it didn’t change the fact that my book with my name on it had errors on most pages. Nobody who bought the book would know or care that I’d actually paid for supposed professional editing. Nobody was emailing that editor to point out the errors. No part of her job description included standing publicly beside the work and accepting blame for anything that didn’t go right. I’d outsourced the proofreading work, but the consequences were all mine.

Students applying to college this fall, remember that you can’t outsource responsibility for your application. No matter where you go to school, no matter how much help may be available to you, you—not anyone on your application support team—are the one whose college future is at stake. If you miss a deadline, if you ignore requests for additional information, if a ball gets dropped because you thought it was someone else’s job to pick it up, you’re the one who will bear the consequences. Most colleges will not take “My parent/school counselor/teacher/private counselor was supposed to take care of that…” as a valid excuse.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t trust anyone to help you. You can and likely should seek help from qualified people who have some skin in the game.

But don’t sit back and expect other people to care about this process more than you do. Don’t wait for people to tell you what to do and when to do it. Don’t point at your parents or your counselor and claim this is their job. It’s your college future. These are your applications. This is your responsibility. And the most successful college applicants seek (if not demand) that responsibility; they don’t wait for someone else to offer it to them.

You’ll be less likely to try to outsource the responsibility for getting into college if you remember that you won’t be able to outsource the consequences on the other side.

Back to school: greatest hits edition

Here’s a collection of past posts and resources to consider as students head back to school.

For high school students:

How to achieve your goals in school this year.

How to be more impressive by doing less.

Some advice to help you earn better grades.

A past post with back-to-school resolution suggestions.

My favorite study skills book is Cal Newport’s How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Don’t let the “college students” reference in the title throw you off, as most of it applies to high school students, too. Includes great advice about how to take notes, how to study, how to take a test, etc.

My book, If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted, explains every step of the college admissions process, from classes and testing to applications, essays, and interviews.

For parents:

The Challenge Success folks share their Top Ten Back-to-School Tips to Help your Child Thrive in School This Year.

For college students:

A past post with resources and advice to help you start college strong and happy.


Monday morning Q&A

As a fun almost-back-to-school diversion, I’d like to try something new here. For the next month or so, I’ll be answering a question every week from a blog reader. The question form is here if you’d like to submit one for consideration. Anything goes, but questions that are too specific to one particular student aren’t likely to get selected unless there’s a broader application for other readers.

Changing tides

At the speeches I would give at Southern California high schools shortly after starting Collegewise in 1999, one line was always guaranteed to get a big laugh from the crowd.

“Southern Californian kids aren’t going to arrive at the breakfast table one morning and announce to their parents, ‘Today is the day I apply to the University of Alabama.’”

No insult intended to ‘Bama fans or alums. That joke had nothing to do with the quality of the school, the education, or the experience. Kids and parents everywhere have preconceived notions about particular colleges, geographic regions, and even weather, many if not most of which are not rooted in facts. At that time, in those zip codes, for those particular families, the notion that a student would travel all the way to Alabama to attend a big public school in lieu of attending others that were closer, more prestigious, or both, just seemed nonsensical to them.

I’m happy to report that the joke would never work for those same audiences today.

Alabama gets applications from plenty of Southern Californian students today, including those from high schools where I’ve made that joke. And many of our former Collegewise students from those and other areas have gone on to Alabama and now happily sign off their emails to us with “Roll Tide!

The school didn’t fundamentally change during that time—the students (and parents) did. It only takes a few students to break new college ground and report back to their younger former classmates to start a trend for the next wave of applicants. We saw the same shift in 2006 with the University of Texas (not coincidentally after their Rose Bowl win over USC in what’s been called the greatest college football game of all time).

No college is right for every student, and there are lots of perfectly legitimate reasons why you might write off a potential school as being not-for-you. Effective college matchmaking means deciding which schools are left off, not just included on, your list.

But as you choose colleges to apply to, it might be worth asking yourself if any of your “deal-breakers” would change if one or more of your older classmates were currently attending and enjoying their experience. Too cold, too small, don’t like the Midwest or the South or the Northeast, no basketball team, no fraternity/sorority scene, too middle-of-nowhere, can’t handle big cities—whatever your reasons for leaving a college off, would they change if your good friend were already there and loving his or her experience?

Happy reports like those may not change your mind at all, and that’s OK. But considering whether or not such a testimonial could make a difference might help you distinguish between a genuine preference and a preconceived notion.

Perceptions can change over time. And there’s nothing wrong with embracing or even initiating a change in the college tides.

Last call for my essay webinar

It’s officially last call for my webinar, How to Write a Great College Essay, on Tuesday, August 22 from 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. PDT. I’ll be sharing tips that will help students write any college essay, from a personal statement, to short-answer questions, to Common App essays. Parents are certainly welcome to attend, too, and I hope doing so will help you feel confident that the surest way for an applicant to write an essay a college will enjoy reading is for the student—not Mom or Dad—to drive the story selection. Tickets are $10, and all the information is here.

Great things take time to make

Between the day I left for college and the day I arrived home for my December holiday break, I had almost no communication with anyone I’d gone to high school with. Unless we were willing to place an expensive long-distance phone call or write a good old-fashioned letter, we all had to wait until December to reconvene in our hometown and swap college stories. Until that time, each of our experiences was our own. The only frame of comparison was our fellow students on our respective campuses, not our friends spread out at colleges across the country.

Times are different for today’s college freshmen. With email, text, and social media, everyone is experiencing college together—virtually. It’s a great way to see what your old friends are up to, and even to stay in closer touch with those people you’d rather have more meaningful exchanges with than just the occasional comment on a posted photo. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to make you feel terrible about your own college experience.

When you scroll through social media feeds of nothing but positive reports and renderings from college campuses, yet you’ve got a roommate you don’t connect with, or classes that haven’t inspired you yet, or a campus social scene where you’ve yet to find your place, you might feel like you’re doing college wrong while everyone else is doing it right. It’s even worse if you start second-guessing your choice of where to spend these next four years.

New college freshmen, please remember two things. First, much of what you see and read about your friends’ experiences at college is just advertising. Many are posting the carefully selected share-worthy moments that don’t necessarily reflect the entirety of their experience. Second, while some people experience college bliss from the moment they move into their dorm, many more do not.

Looking back, was your first week or month or even semester of high school representative of the entire four-year experience? Probably not. And your earliest college experiences won’t be, either. A great college experience is the sum of four years that will include lots of ups and downs, successes and failures, good fortune and tough breaks. Believe it or not, all of those things contribute to what makes college such a learning, growing, and even flat-out-fun period of your life. In fact, that’s not just college, that’s life. And you deserve to reap all the great rewards and memories of it without the impression that you’re the only one for whom the ride is occasionally bumpy.

So many of today’s college freshmen have spent the last four years or more working towards and dreaming about what’s been promised to be the best, most fulfilling, most transformative experience of their lives. For most of you, it will be just that when you look back on it. But please don’t despair if it doesn’t seem to be happening for you on week one, semester one, or in some cases even year one. Relieve yourself of the pressure of expecting that every day should be your best day. Instead, focus on things you can control—your effort, your initiative, your willingness to treat every day of college as an opportunity to go out and make something of it as opposed to sitting back and waiting for that something to come to you.

Spend enough days doing those things and it will start to add up. Over time, you’ll have plenty to love—and share—about college.

College will be great. But great things take time to make.

Make “Why this college?” about you

Of all the questions on college applications, any version of “Why are you interested in attending this college?” could well be the one students struggle with most. It’s easy if you’re the rare student who’s interested in a major or program that very few other colleges offer. But most students don’t have their interest narrowed down that specifically. And that’s why so many applicants end up either expressing vague generalities like “You have a great reputation, top professors, and a beautiful campus,” or composing a list of specific features that they obviously just looked up on the college’s website, like “You have an 11-1 student-faculty ratio.” Neither of those approaches gets you closer to admission.

The best answers to this type of question have a lot more to do with you than they do with the college, and here’s why. The colleges are asking not just because they want to know if you’re a good fit. Even more importantly, they also want to know how likely you’d be to accept an offer of admission if one were extended to you.

Let me propose a scenario to better explain this to students who read this blog.

Imagine you received five invitations to the prom, each from someone you’d genuinely like to go with. You can only say yes to one, but here’s the catch—you’re not the only person each is asking. You have no real way of knowing who genuinely wants to go with you and who’s just playing the odds. You could be the first choice, the backup, or somewhere in-between.

In case this admittedly stretched analogy is failing, let me be clear—they’re the college applicants, you’re the college.

One way to get a sense of who would be most likely to take you up on your acceptance might be to ask, “Tell me more about why you’d like to go to the prom with me.”

Which of these two responses makes you feel more confident that they’d say yes to you if you said yes to them?

You have a reputation as a high-achieving student. You have a good GPA, you’ve participated in lots of activities, and you take four AP classes. You also were named all-league in both tennis and basketball, you’ve won a lot of department awards at school, and I heard that you’ve already started to win some college scholarship money. You have a part-time job, so I think you’ll be able to help pay for prom expenses. Finally, you eat salads at lunch a lot, which is a lot healthier than many other lunch options.

You might be flattered. It’s nice to hear someone say positive things about you. But this person just told you a lot about something you already knew well—yourself. And you’ve still got no sense why or if they really want to go to the prom with you.

Contrast that with this response:

I’m not a social risk-taker. I don’t go to the crazy parties, so I’m not looking to sneak booze into the prom or do anything else that so many other people are talking about doing. I just want to go with someone I like, dance, take some pictures, and have a fun night with our mutual friends that we can look back on and smile about. It’s our prom, and it’s a big deal. I think it can be a lot of fun without doing something that will get us in trouble three weeks before we graduate. I don’t know you well, but we’ve talked enough that I think you’re someone who might want the same thing. So if you want to go with me, I’d love to take you. I think we’d make a great prom night couple.

See the difference? Whether or not that description appeals to you is up to you. But you know where this person stands. You know a little more about them and why they think you’re a good prom match. And most importantly, their response gives you a sense that they might welcome a yes from you.

When you answer a “Why this college?” question, it’s fine to describe aspects of that college that appeal to you. And if you’ve found something specific—a major, a program, a professor, etc. that matches something you’re genuinely looking for in a college, say so! They’re asking, after all.

But remember that admissions officers don’t need you to tell them about the place they work. They want you to tell them about you, what you are looking for in a college, and why you both could be a good fit together.

There are times when it’s OK to make something about you. Answering a “Why this college?” question is one of those times.

What would you do?

After watching Adam Grant’s 2-minute video, “How to Raise Resilient Kids,” I wanted to go back and add one of his tips to my list of examples parents can set for kids. The next time you’re facing one of those challenges where there is no clear right answer, ask your kids, “What would you do?”

Maybe you’re nervous about a presentation or project at work, or you’re having a conflict with your father-in-law, or you’re trying to decide whether to save more money or take a vacation. Any one of those is a teaching and learning moment. So invite your kids to share their advice.

As Grant points out, it’s great training for your kids to think through these situations and imagine how they would handle them. But even more importantly, it sends the message that you’re willing to seek out advice when you need it, that even Mom or Dad doesn’t always know the right answer, and that you respect their take enough to ask for it.

Best case scenario, you get some good advice. Even if you don’t, you’ll be training your kids with the kind of situations they’ll face regularly as they get older. And it really is as simple as asking, “What would you do?”

Innovating and honoring

I still remember one of the questions I was asked during my interview for a position as a summer orientation program coordinator during my senior year of college.

What do you think will be the most challenging part of being an orientation coordinator?

I was ready for this one. It was something I’d thought about a lot and was hoping I’d get the chance to talk about.

The short version of my answer: Deciding which parts of the program we should change to look for newer, better ways of doing things, and which parts we should keep the same.

That program had been thriving for nearly 20 years, with a rich history and a long line of traditions that meant something to people. Plenty of smart, successful coordinators had come before. Clearly, they’d done a lot right. And it felt pretty arrogant to suggest that any part of the program needed a complete overhaul.

But I also knew promising only to repeat everything, unchanged and unimproved, was no way to get any job worth having. The hiring committee didn’t just want the program to duplicate itself year after year. They wanted progress– new and better ways to serve the program’s mission of helping incoming students feel welcome and prepared for college.

I genuinely believed that striking that balance of honoring the old and embracing the new would be challenging, but that the right people for the job would embrace that opportunity. I can’t say for sure whether or not that was the answer they were looking for, but I did get the job. And my fellow coordinators and I spent the next nine months deciding where to innovate with what would be new and honoring what was already old.

Students, teachers, and counselors, as you head back to school and assume your positions in offices, classrooms, teams, clubs, organizations, and other constituencies, where will you innovate to find the new, and what will you keep unchanged by honoring the old?

There’s no easy, right answer to this. But here’s a good place to start. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is not honoring the old and is often an insufficient reason to stay the same. Unless it’s followed by something compelling like…

…and everyone has been thrilled with the results
….and we’ve yet to find something that promises to work that well
…and it’s at the core of who we are and what we stand for
…and the stakes are just too high to experiment with something unproven

…then it might be time to try some innovating.

How to train your parents to step back

I write often here about how important it is for parents to step back. Kids who rely on their parents to direct, manage, and fix their lives for them are less successful getting into college and less prepared once they get there.

But the truth is that there’s a lot teenagers can do to earn that independence rather than just lament its absence. Here are five suggestions.

1. Start doing things you’ve always been asked to do.
Asking for independence isn’t nearly as effective as actually demonstrating it. And the best way to start is to do things your parents have always had to ask you to do, like making your bed, cleaning your room, taking out the trash, etc. Tasks like these are the low-hanging fruit of independence. You don’t need permission. You don’t have to earn the right. Just start (and don’t stop). Every teen wants to stay out later or have access to the family car or spend unsupervised time with their friends. But it’s hard to entrust a teenager with a car and late curfew if you can’t be trusted to make your bed without being asked. Assuming responsibility for the things you’ve always had to be asked to do will demonstrate a real maturity and independence that you and your parents can build on.

2. Look for opportunities where failure would be recoverable.
Most parents’ reluctance to step back comes from their fear of what will happen if things go badly. If the first independence you seek is to manage your entire college application process with no parental oversight, failure might not be recoverable (missing a deadline could mean that a college you loved is now completely off the table). Instead, start with things where you could recover from the worst case scenario. Meeting with your counselor to discuss your course planning, keeping track of your schedule for your part-time job, asking your calculus teacher for some extra help before the next exam—if those things don’t go well, there will be little harm done and your parents could even step in if you needed them to. Think of it like training for a marathon or investing money—you have to build up slowly before you can safely go big.

3. Seek advice along with permission.
Many students assert their need for independence along with a steadfast refusal to listen to any advice. But the problem with that approach is that it puts you and your parents on opposite sides of the table. And as ready as you may be to do more on your own, your parents know more about life than you do. So instead, ask for their advice along with their permission. There’s a big difference between “Can I go with my friends to look at colleges this weekend?” and “I want to look at colleges this weekend with my friends. What do you think I should do while I’m there to get the most out of it?” See the difference? The former is pushing them out. The latter is inviting them in.

4. Share credit, own blame.
As you direct more of your own life, some things will work out as you’d hoped, and some will not. How you respond to each will affect whether or not you’ll get more chances to stretch in the future. So here’s a tip—give your parents credit when things go well, but own all the blame yourself when they don’t.

“My counselor agreed to let me do an independent study, just like we talked about. Thanks for your advice. It really helped.”

“I thought I could juggle both activities at the same time, but I was wrong. I’ll make sure not to take on more than I can handle again.”

No demand for acknowledgement when it goes right, and no excuses for when it goes wrong. Just a willingness to share the good and to own the bad. And both responses earn you more opportunities in the future.

5. Respect the process.
The transfer of responsibility from parent to student isn’t meant to happen overnight. It’s a process. And like any process that a) involves human beings and b) is worth doing, it takes time, patience, and an acknowledgment that if it were easy, everyone would do it perfectly. So expect that it will take some time. You and your parents may both make mistakes along the way—remember that they’re more likely to forgive yours if you’re willing to do the same for them. And most importantly, care more about progress than you do about getting what you want when you want it. Showing that you can move maturely and productively through the ups and downs doesn’t just show respect for the process. It also shows that you’re behaving like the adult who’s ready for the very independence you’re seeking.