A faster path to indispensability

I’m consistently reminded that the people who ask great questions contribute as much as, if not more than, those who have great answers.

It takes time, brains, opportunity, and luck to be the smartest person in the room. But the field to be the most inquisitive is often wide open.

A faster path to indispensability: talk less, listen more, and ask great questions.

Rarely just one chapter

The high school

The essay

The connection

The hook

The background

The interview

None of those things alone get a student into college. They can influence a decision in some cases, but they don’t have the power to change an admissions “no” into an acceptance.

So be wary when someone claims a student “got in because of…,” however that sentence may finish. Unless they were in the room when the decision was made (or they’re a high school counselor who had communication with the admissions office), the person making the claim doesn’t know the real story. And the real story is rarely just one chapter.

More on strengths over weaknesses

The research and the experts keep showing up to endorse focusing on strengths—our own, and our kids’—rather than fixing weaknesses. Lea Walters is a positive psychology researcher and the author of The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish.

As shared in her recent piece:

Three decades of research point to the advantages of taking a strength-based approach in our lives, including better work performance, greater levels of happiness at work, and greater likelihood of staying at work.

Research shows that the benefits of playing to strengths spill over outside of work, too: more happiness in marriage, higher levels of physical health, better recovery after illness, increased life satisfaction, and higher self-esteem.

Studies have also found that helping your kids play to their strengths helps them to develop resilience, build optimism, do better at school, handle friendship stress, and much more.

When kids tell the best stories

Today I’m doing my annual essay workshop for the Collegewise families in our Bellevue, Washington, office. In the early years of Collegewise, I was in front of families 2-3 times a week to discuss some element of college planning. And while those opportunities are a lot more infrequent now that Collegewise has grown and my responsibilities have changed so much, the essay session is always my favorite because I’m trying to change the parents’ behaviors even more than I am the kids’.

Parents and college essays tend to be a bad mix. That might not be true if you’re a parent who really knows how to write and you’re helping someone you’re not related to. But when it’s your own child, it’s just impossible to be an objective, non-biased voice. You’re too close to the subject matter to be an impartial observer.

Adults also see the world differently than kids do. You’ve lived long enough to add learning and experiences and perspective to your worldview. But a college admissions officer wants to better understand the applicant and what makes them tick. They want to learn more about what it was like to be the worst swimmer on the swim team and why that kid slogged through it anyway. They want to learn more about why there’s so much pressure on the kid who ran the lights for the school play, or what it felt like to step in for the first chair oboist, or how life changed when the teenager gave up after-school sports to help care for the new baby brother in the house.

Colleges aren’t interested in the adult’s version of those events. They want the 17-year-old’s take, the story as told by the kid who lived it.

Those stories won’t have the same perspective and wisdom that an adult would have brought to it, but that’s what makes college essays so fascinating. A not-yet-fully-grown adult with their whole life in front of them shares a snapshot of what their life is like today. The more it sounds like an idea that was conceived, over-edited, or worse, written by the parent, the less compelling that story will be.

So parents, as your students move into college application season over the next several months, as much as possible, step back during the college essay process. Encourage your kids to get advice from someone they like and respect, like an English teacher or a counselor, and let that person do their job. Then get back to doing yours—cheerleading, supporting from the sidelines, and most importantly, being the parent of a college applicant.

For this particular audience, kids tell their stories better than their parents can.

Doing more than dabbling

A student asked me this week if writing a feature-length screenplay this summer would be a strong addition to his college applications. “Will this look good?” queries pop up all the time for college counselors, and it’s easy to have a visceral reaction when we assume this is yet another student intent on making every decision based on what colleges ostensibly want to see in an applicant. But I don’t find these questions unreasonable at all. If a college—one that is evaluating a student for admission—asks a student to share something, it’s only logical to want to know the response will be well-received.

Most good counselors approach questions like this in a similar way by first stripping college admissions out of the equation. Does this student really enjoy writing scripts? Is this a project they’re excited about? If college apps worked in such a way that the admissions office would never know about the screenplay, would the student still write it this summer, just because it’s something they genuinely wanted to do?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then go for it. Worry less about the college application impact and embrace the opportunity to do something productive that you really enjoy.

But outside judgement is a powerful force, especially when that evaluation leads to an admissions decision. So once we’ve established that a student is genuinely interested in something, a Collegewise counselor will try to give an honest answer about the potential impact. In this case, most colleges won’t take the time to read a submitted screenplay. And while “Wrote feature-length screenplay” sounds great, there’s no way to verify the strength–or even the existence–of the work. So I encouraged the student to think about ways he could really demonstrate his interest to an even greater degree.

Could he get some friends together who are interested in filming or directing and actually shoot the movie?

Could he take a screenwriting class at a local community college or even online (wouldn’t have to be expensive at all)?

Could he turn it into a play he performs with friends at school?

What else could this student do, this summer or after, that would show this lone screenplay is just one part of an even more compelling picture?

Not every activity should be taken to a reasonable extreme. So I reminded the student that if he just wanted to enjoy the freedom to write whatever he wanted to write without deadlines or direction and then call it a day, he should sit down at the keyboard and let the words fly. Don’t let the purported admissions correlation make that decision for you.

But if the idea of doing more than dabbling within an interest lights you up, then you’ve got the chance to boost your mood, your skills, and your college application.

Ability vs. willingness

When I first started Collegewise in 1999, I enrolled in a course through the UCLA extension program to learn more about financial aid for college. I still remember one particularly pithy piece of information from the instructor, who’d worked as a director of financial aid for several prominent colleges and universities.

“Financial aid is designed to make up for a family’s lack of ability, not their lack of willingness, to pay for college.”

Financial aid officers treat paying for college as a responsibility that falls first on the family. The financial aid formulas determine the price a family can reasonably afford—it’s a snapshot of their ability to pay for college. When it works well, a financial aid package can make up the difference.

A family certainly has the right to decide that a particular college’s price is more than they are willing to pay. They also have the right to decide to live beyond their means rather than to save that money for college. But they can’t make those choices and then expect a financial aid package to make up the difference. That’s asking financial aid to make up for a lack of willingness to pay, not a lack of ability.

Given that every dollar you set aside for college is a dollar less that financial aid will cover, a family who diligently saves what they can afford to set aside, no matter what the amount may be, is taking more control of their college financial future. And they’re also demonstrating to financial aid officers that they have leaned into their responsibility. That willingness to save can increase a college’s willingness to help.

The formulas will calculate your need, but your actions can demonstrate your willingness.

We’re all average

Somewhere along the American college planning and career line, “average” got a bad rap. Unexceptional, unremarkable, wallowing in perpetual mediocrity. Nobody aspires to be average. And for many parents, we couldn’t bear to hear that word applied to our kids.

But here’s the thing. With the rare exception of the truly exceptional, we’re all average—you, me, and yes, our kids.

We have things that we’re good at. We have things that we can’t do and probably never will. Everything else falls somewhere into the middle—and that’s the average.

But accepting average doesn’t mean expecting less. For parents, I think there are a few healthy ways to strike a good balance with your kids.

  1. Don’t expect them to be great at everything they try. You wouldn’t expect a professional chef to also be able to remodel your house, do your taxes, and realign your spine. And it’s not reasonable to expect our kids to set the curve at everything they touch inside and outside of the classroom.
  2. Embrace strengths over fixating on perceived weaknesses. Strengths improve more than weaknesses do. The way for a student to stand out is not to polish every perceived flaw, but to flourish in areas where they naturally thrive. The more kids can do those things that they’re predisposed to do well—which not coincidentally also tend to be those things they like—the happier and more successful they’re going to be.
  3. Don’t overpraise. Kids should feel unconditionally loved by their parents. But they shouldn’t be told that everything they touch is award-worthy. The world isn’t going to praise everything they do, and it’s not helpful to set them up with that expectation. Praise has its place, but that place isn’t all day, about everything, every day. Here are three past posts, here, here, and here, from experts to help you praise in a way that leaves kids feeling appreciated by the parents they love, but also prepared for a world that won’t necessarily love them no matter what they do.

Rest to take and work to do

Sports fans (and sports participants) understand the role of the off-season. It’s a time for athletes to heal and to take a break—physically and mentally—from the day-to-day grind of practice and the relentless pressure of competition. But the off-season is also a time to prepare, to study, and to improve. Athletes will train, work on important components of their game, and address any areas that will help them compete when the next season arrives. Done correctly, this balance of recovery and recommitment means that an athlete arrives at the start of the next season primed for performance. Don’t show up run-down. Don’t show up out of shape. Show up rested and ready to get to work.

High school seniors should view their summer the same way.

If your junior year felt like a nine-month sprint full of AP classes, standardized tests, and extracurriculars, if sufficient downtime became a lost luxury, the summer is your time to rest and recover. Get eight hours of sleep on a regular basis. Spend time with your friends and family. Do things that make you happy, especially those that have absolutely nothing to do with getting into college. That’s the resting part of your off-season, and it’s crucial for your future readiness and performance.

But the senior year will eventually arrive. And in addition to the usual rigors, you’ll have college applications and the associated deadlines to contend with. Why not use the summer to help you prepare and to ensure you don’t have to start the (college application) season out of shape?

During your summer off-season, you can research and finalize your college list. You can begin and even complete some of your college applications and essays. You can retake a standardized test or assemble a required portfolio or prepare a schedule of what needs to be done and when.

Best of all, each of those tasks can exist concurrently with a consistent regimen of rest and recovery. Much as it does for an athlete, an effective off-season should be about striking a balance, one that leaves you ready to perform when the season officially begins.

The off-season, like the season itself, won’t last forever. You’ve got to take advantage of it when it’s presented to you. So don’t miss it. Don’t enjoy so much downtime that you arrive to the season out of application shape, but don’t press so hard that you’re run-down before the season even begins. You’ve got rest to take and work to do. And the off-season is your opportunity for both.

One room, smart people, and no agenda

Sometimes the best ideas—for a company, for a school, for a club or organization—come from the newest members. This week, I joined Collegewise Orientation for Class 40, a crop of seven new Collegewisers finding their footing during their first week of work. While enjoying dinner on night one, Zain, one of our new online counselors, shared a deceptively simple approach that just about any group could embrace.

“If you want to get good ideas, put smart people in a room and don’t tell them what to talk about.”

I often push back on the idea of “Let’s have a meeting.” All too often, meetings go too long, involve too many people, and decide nothing other than to schedule yet another meeting. I push to meet only when it’s necessary, to have tight agendas when we do, and to make sure there is a specific outcome intended. I still believe that’s a good approach to meetings at work, but the reminder was a good one.

When college admissions officers are assembling a class, they’re doing so driven in large part by the belief that if they bring smart, engaged, diverse groups of students with different interests, perspectives, and backgrounds together, they’ll learn from each other. That’s a lot like what we’re trying to do with assembling our teams at Collegewise.

If you want to unlock the genius within your group, I’d do three things right away:

  1. Recognize that the more people you have thinking about how to make your organization even better, the better your organization will be.
  2.  Ask the new people what they see, what they notice, and what they think. Fresh eyes can be the antidote for stale environments.
  3. Regularly put smart people in a room, and don’t tell them what to talk about.

You might be surprised by how much you–and they–learn.