What would you actually discuss?

The most common college essay advice is some version of, “Write about something important to you.” It’s good advice, but often difficult to execute. For example, playing on the football team may be important to you. But if you write an essay about how football has taught you the importance of committing to your goals, you’ve just written an essay that thousands of other students will write. You followed the advice, but it didn’t serve you well.

Here’s a different version of that advice:

Imagine you had a relaxed, 1-hour conversation with your favorite teacher at a coffee shop (I’m assuming your favorite teacher is someone you like and respect).

What do you think you might talk about?
What do you imagine you would say about those topics?

Chances are, you wouldn’t go on for 20 minutes detailing what it means to be on the football team, explaining why teamwork is important, or recounting a teammate’s injury and how that taught you that it’s just a game, after all.

But you might talk about how great it was that your dad left work early to come watch you play the first time you were named as a starter.

You might talk about how the fact that you’ve never been successful at sports didn’t stop you from learning how to punt a football and practicing all summer so you could try out for the team.

You might talk about why you love being on the team even though you’ve never gotten a single minute of playing time.

Those are real conversations you might have with an adult you like and respect. And that’s why those topics, each of which is a real example from a Collegewise student, are great choices for college essays.

Asking yourself, “What do they want to hear?” or “What’s going to sound good?” is the worst way to start a college essay. Those are the same questions your competition is asking, and a surprising number of students will reach identical conclusions.

Instead, write your essay as though you were having a real conversation with an adult you respect and feel comfortable with. You’re still following the advice and writing about something important to you. But you’ll do so in a way that makes an admissions officer want to keep reading. And more importantly, you’ll stand out from the other applicants.

Embracing beginnings and endings

Madeline Levine over at Challenge Success has some good advice in this post for parents about how to embrace and even enjoy the transition of sending your kids off to college. My favorite part:

“Growing up, growing older, letting our children move into their own lives are not exactly decisions. They simply happen. Better to meet these transitions with optimism, enthusiasm, humor and grace. Life is all about endings and beginnings. For our children. And for us.”

First, raise happy and healthy kids

I got an email last week from a former Collegewise parent. What she wrote didn’t surprise me at all, but it completely made my week.

She and her husband put four kids through our Collegewise program.  As is often the case with siblings, these kids were very different from each other.  They ran the gamut in terms of their academic achievements (from A’s to C’s), their chosen activities, and their personalities. And they attended four very different colleges—from an Ivy League school to a school that accepts almost everyone who applies.

But these four very different siblings had one thing in common—they were good kids. These were the kinds of kids who would voluntarily show up to cheer on their siblings at their respective events. They each did their best in school albeit with different results. They were nice to their fellow teens. They were always polite and respectful with adults. They loved their family and were beaming happily in the annual holiday card photo we’d receive. Not surprisingly, their wildly different GPAs, test scores, and college options did not change the unconditional love and pride they all received equally from their parents.

Their mother’s email to me detailed how well each of them is doing. Three are successful professionals about to get married and start families of their own soon. One is in his senior year of college and enjoys being spoiled when he visits his big sisters.

But she signed off with the most important update of all:

“The kids are happy and healthy, and I am blessed.”

In that one sentence, she summed up what I have to imagine is every parent’s biggest hope for their kids—that they are happy and healthy.

The stress of the college admissions process can make you feel like a GPA, test score, or decision from a particular college will fundamentally impact your kids’ ability to be happy and healthy in the future. It won’t.

Admissions anxiety might occasionally make you feel like the outcomes are somehow a measure of your parenting. They’re not.

The entire process can feel like a high-stakes, escalating arms race where all but the highest achievers will emerge unscathed. It isn’t.

There’s a lot to focus on when you’re a parent. And there are times when GPAs and test scores and other parts of the process will demand some of your attention. But don’t lose sight of the most important goal of all—to raise happy and healthy kids.

The GPA and test scores and even admissions decisions will fade. But the happiness and health have staying power.

Is your ambition worth the price?

Ambition is a great thing. When you combine it with focus and a work ethic, you’ve got the traits successful people use to get where they want to go.

But it’s important to ask yourself—what price am I paying to pursue this ambition?

Here’s an example. If you’re relentlessly focused on doing well in school so you can learn and prepare yourself to succeed in college, kudos. The hard work seems like a fair price to pay for ambition (especially given that your odds are roughly 100% that the work will pay off in some way).

But if you’re relentlessly focused on doing well in school so you can get into a prestigious college, your ambition and work ethic are still great. But your odds are not so good. And more troublingly, your ambition may come at a high price.

I’ve met plenty of students who were so focused on getting into a prestigious college that they refused to apply to or even consider schools where their chances of admission were strong. Those students are filled with anxiety throughout the entire process. Many are ultimately left without colleges they were excited to attend. In the worst cases, some are left with no college options at all. Those students have paid a terrible price for their ambition.

I would never tell a student to dream smaller.  But if you aspire to attend a prestigious college and you’re doing the work to get there, please don’t pay too high a price to pursue that ambition. Embrace your ambition, but at the right price. Patrick O’Connor’s newest column shows you how.

Parents: want responsible, conscientious kids?

Here’s an excerpt from the article How Helicopter Parenting is Ruining College Students (the study referenced was done by two management professors):

“The study showed that those college students with ‘helicopter parents’ had a hard time believing in their own ability to accomplish goals. They were more dependent on others, had poor coping strategies and didn’t have soft skills, like responsibility and conscientiousness throughout college, the authors found.”

It’s not that parents should completely sever ties with your college student. But college is preparing them for life after college. Your job is to step back so they can learn the necessary skills. For parents of high school students, now is the time to start a taper period.


Ten not-to-do’s for parents

Liz Willen doesn’t claim to be a college admissions expert. But she is a parent of a college applicant, and she has covered education as a writer for many years. I think most of her Ten things not to do when your child is applying to college—don’t talk about test scores, don’t think of the admissions outcomes as a reflection of your parenting, don’t pin hopes on one or two colleges, etc.—are spot on.

The one adjustment I’d make is to #7’s “DO NOT anticipate much personal attention, guidance and hand-holding from school counselors if you attend a large public high school. Their caseload is too big and they simply do not have the time.”

My revision: “Don’t make assumptions about how much help you will or will not receive from your high school counselor.”

Is it true that many public school counselors are too busy to provide one-on-one attention to all of their college applicants? Yes, and many of the counselors would be the first to tell you so. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t help you at all or that you’ll need to pay someone else for guidance.

Only your counselor can tell you what you can or cannot reasonably expect in terms of personal attention. So ask what level of assistance is reasonable to expect. Even better, have your student ask. And do so before you actually need the help.

Secrets to time management

Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke, shares six secrets to being more efficient. Ironically, I thought the article itself was not at all efficient—too many links and videos and other distractions trying to turn my attention someplace else. But two of the tips in particular seemed valuable, especially for high school students hoping to improve their grades:

1. Control your environment.
Great work doesn’t happen just anywhere. You’ve got to create the right environment. How do the most productive computer programmers get the job done? As Ariely puts it:

“…top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

2. Email kills productivity.
Ariely points out that interruptions of any kind kill productivity. But email is the worst of the killers because as Ariely puts it:

“People think that checking email refreshes them. It doesn’t. If you want to get refreshed, close your eyes, meditate, breathe deeply, or think about some things that are important. The reality is the right way to do things is shut your email down and focus on what you’re doing.”

Treat them like (imperfect) adults

Most adults, even those who are high-achieving, don’t expect perfection from their peers, co-workers, or themselves. A great accountant might be a terrible cook. A great salesperson might not be able to fix anything around the house. The best coach might be a working example of disorganization in her office. There are too many roles to be played for any of us to reasonably expect that one person could excel at all of them.

Yet sometimes, we forget to extend that same consideration to high school kids.

High school students are constantly being measured, scored, and evaluated. Their grade on a paper, their score on the SAT, their GPA, their number of community service hours, the awards they’ve won, whether or not they’re a starter or the first chair or the acknowledged leader—it’s easy for even the most nurturing parent to focus on the weaknesses and look for ways to address them. But the message that sends to kids is that they have to be great at everything, that anything less than perfection is a smudge that needs to be buffed out.

I’m not arguing that kids should never be evaluated or that parents should simply accept any outcome. Anyone who plans on going to college and having a job someday needs to be comfortable with some evaluation. And a student who’s failing math has more than an imperfection—that’s a real struggle that needs to be addressed.

But parents who celebrate their student’s strengths and who praise effort over outcomes are more likely to have happy, successful students, students who aren’t afraid of challenges and are more likely to reach for what they want.

When the college admissions anxiety makes you start seeking perfection from your student, take a step back and treat them like imperfect adults.

Keep going

If you predicate all your hard work on gaining admission to one prestigious college, you’ve given one college all the power. That single moment in time when the admissions decision arrives will validate or invalidate four years of your hard work. For families who approach the process that way, it’s no wonder it feels like a high-stakes arms race.

But success (or a lack of it) can almost never be traced to a single moment in time. Rather, success comes from your willingness to keep going.

Most successful students, executives, teachers, musicians, athletes, social workers, investment bankers, software engineers, etc. didn’t get that way because lightning struck on one particular day. They got that way because they kept going. They worked hard, learned, and got a little better at their craft, bit by bit, every day. When they made mistakes, they dusted themselves off and learned from them. Then they kept going. When you keep going, the effort and learning from all those individual days starts to add up. Projects, businesses, bands, and teams work the same way.

Yesterday passed by me before I remembered that it was exactly five years ago—October 12, 2009—that I started writing this blog every day. I haven’t missed a day since. Some posts are much better than others. But writing every day takes away any pressure of creating a lightning bolt. One post, once a day, bit by bit. Five years later, I’ve got a collection of writing and a blog that some people actually read.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it. And I hope you’ll keep going with me.

First-world problems

The person who rants incessantly that their $500 iPhone drops an occasional call is living in a very different world from someone who worries about finding food and shelter. The former is experiencing first-world problems, a phrase that acknowledges or reminds us that if our only problems are of the first-world variety, we actually don’t have much to complain about. It’s all about maintaining our perspective.

Much of the anxiety I see students and parents experiencing around the college admissions process comes from focusing on first-world problems.

I’ve done seminars for families whose primary concern is getting an admission to an Ivy League school. I’ve also done them for foster kids who’ve grown up without stable homes or families, who will be totally on their own to put themselves through college.

I’ve talked to students who are frustrated that their SAT scores still don’t crack 2000, and I’ve talked to one student who was completely deaf and had to sit in the front row of his classes so that he could read the teachers’ lips.

I worked with one student who was so incensed when his football coach decided not to start him, he quit the team in protest. That same year, I worked with a starting wide receiver who quit his football team to take care of his mother who was dying of cancer.

Getting frustrated with first-world problems  is something we all do. There are days when I get unreasonably irritated by the slow progression of the line at the grocery store and completely forget how long the line is at the homeless shelter six blocks away.

But if the thing that keeps you up at night is worrying whether or not Yale will say yes, if you’re enraged and want to raise academic hell because your Spanish teacher gave you a B, if you didn’t get the part you wanted in the school play, if you didn’t get to pitch on your all-star team last week, or you didn’t quite make the cut for AP chemistry, or the kid down the street got into Harvard and you’re stuck going to Michigan (I actually heard a student say that once), it’s frustrating. I hear you.

But you know what? First-world problems—all of them.

When you feel first-world frustrations creeping in, take a deep breath and remind yourself how lucky you are to have the opportunity to go to college at all, to learn what you want to learn and to have so much freedom to decide what direction you want your life to take. Those opportunities are gifts that plenty of people in this world could never imagine receiving.

When first-world problems frustrate you, that’s a sure sign that life is good.