Perfect on paper, not in practice

One of the most common collegiate sentiments I hear from adults I speak with, including our own counselors at Collegewise, is that they didn’t put nearly as much thought into their college selection as it merited. They didn’t pore over research and tour every campus and create lists of pros and cons. They just applied to schools that seemed appealing, affordable, or both, and chose one that accepted them.

College counselors, and many parents, want our students to make more informed choices. Guidebooks, websites, meetings with counselors, research, tours—college is an investment of time and money, and we want to give our kids the tools and support to invest wisely.

But it’s worth occasionally reminding ourselves and our kids that: (1) there is no such thing as a perfect college, and (2) some uncertainty is normal.

If we’re not careful, the message we can send our kids is that there is one perfect college out there, and that the perfection will be uninterrupted for four years.

Many students do find schools that check every box on the collegiate wish list. But perfect? No way. College absolutely can and should be four years of learning, growth, opportunities and fun. But it won’t be four years of uninterrupted bliss. It will not be free of frustration, failure, or disappointment. Life doesn’t work that way. The best jobs, new cities, friendships, even marriages—all of them have their good days and bad days. What’s perfect on paper is rarely perfect in practice.

Kids should look for the right schools. They should give careful consideration to the type of environment where they could be happy and successful. They should spend the time it takes to find schools that fit their goals, personality, and budget. The fact that there might be no such thing as a perfect marriage doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the decision carefully and thoughtfully. And college selection works the same way.

But it’s entirely possible that a student could do all the research necessary to find the collegiate version of a soulmate and still not be convinced she’s found the one. That’s normal.

Students who head off to college convinced that it’s the perfect match will eventually find or face something that doesn’t seem so perfect. That’s normal, too.

A thoughtful college search process is supposed to make students and parents feel more confident. It should reveal just how many schools there are and give families some sense of security that they didn’t pick based on name, rumor, or pretty architecture alone. It should not provoke more anxiety just because the perfect school has yet to appear. And it should never be mistaken as an immunization against the occasional bad day, week, or month in college.

Look for colleges that are perfect on paper, but don’t expect that they’ll always be perfect in practice.

A Nobel Prize-worthy study skill

According to Daniel Coyle’s “The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills,” the best way to learn from a book isn’t to read and reread. Instead, read it once and then write a one-page summary.

Here’s the passage as quoted on this blog:

“Research shows that people who (wrote a summary) remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow (repeatedly read). This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning. On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.”

To be honest, if someone had recommended this to me when I was in high school, I would have rolled my eyes and moved on with reading (and rereading).

But this exercise isn’t about writing—it’s about learning.

I’ve written before that the most effective way to really know something is to prepare to teach it. In fact, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feymann did it when wrapping his brain around concepts far more complex than high school homework assignments, as explained here by study skills author Scott Young.

To write a one-page summary of a book forces you to review the key ideas, to make distinctions between what’s important and what isn’t, and to explain how each concept ties into the overall message of the reading. If you can do those things, you understand what you’ve read.

So even if you take what would have been my high school approach and laugh off the idea of writing the summary (I don’t blame you), instead, just take 10 minutes and teach it back as if you were standing in front of the class. You won’t laugh it off once you try it.

And here’s a past post of mine with five habits of highly-effective students.

Don’t give testing too much time

What would happen if an admissions officer actually saw him or herself as part teacher, someone who didn’t just evaluate applications, but also tried to help applicants understand how the evaluation works, what to expect, and how to approach applications and essays? And most importantly, what if those opinions were honest and unvarnished, and the admissions officers were the type of people who were willing to come out and say, “This is what we like” or “This will annoy us”?

I think that teacher exists over at the University of Virginia’s blog, which is why I share it often here. This week’s entry pointed out something admissions officers at many schools have found—in Q & A sessions, many audiences will swallow up all of that time asking about the ACT and SAT.

“Testing doesn’t warrant getting half the time during a panel program and it doesn’t warrant getting the majority of your head space as you are juggling the academic load and responsibilities that come with being a junior or senior in high school.”

You can read the rest here.

When once a day adds up

For private counselors looking to grow your businesses, what if on every workday for the next year, you committed to doing just one of these items from the list below?

  • Call or email a customer just to check in.
  • Write a blog post sharing free advice.
  • Record a video sharing free advice.
  • Invite your three strongest competitors to lunch.
  • Learn more about a relevant topic that you don’t know much about.
  • Learn even more about the topic you know a lot about.
  • Create a workshop on admissions, financial aid, or study skills and offer it at a local library.
  • Start reading a relevant how-to book and commit to changing at least one thing based on what you learn.
  • Sit at a coffee shop for one hour and write down ideas about how to improve your counseling or your business.
  • Train an employee or business partner to do something you do well.
  • Write a thank-you note to a customer who’s treated you well.
  • Write a thank-you note to a vendor who’s treated you well.

No single item done once is likely to substantially change you or your business. But there are roughly 200 workdays in a year. Imagine what would happen when those daily actions start adding up.

How to be a parental superhero

My mom still remembers the day she found my brother’s housing application to UC Berkeley sitting on the floor of his bedroom.

It was due in three hours.

In the days before the internet (and with my brother somewhere on the water with his crew team), she saw just one option—make the two-hour round trip drive to Berkeley to personally deliver the application for him.

When she told him later that night what she’d done for him, his chagrined, remorseful response said it all: “I’m sorry, Mom.”

Readers of this blog know how often I preach against helicopter parenting where parents are constantly hovering to play equal parts manager, publicist, and agent for their kids. I write often that parents need to train their high school kids for the independence of adult life, and that good parenting should involve a taper period before college when you progressively do less and less for your kids.

But like so many parts of parenting, I recognize (even more so now that I’m a parent myself) that this is often easier said than done, and that not every situation—or every kid—presents with a clear right or wrong course of parenting action.

When the infamous housing application snafu took place, my brother was ranked #1 in his high school class. He rose every morning at 5:30 a.m., took our school’s most demanding course curriculum, rowed for a state championship crew, and routinely stayed up until past midnight to maintain his perfect GPA. This was not a kid whose mother was running his life for him; this was a kid who was totally self-driven, who’d achieved because of his own ambitions, and in the throes of school and sports and college applications, managed to let one item of paperwork get past him.

Had my mom not swooped in and saved the day, what lesson would she have taught him? That one mistake among all that perfection should cost him the chance to live in a dorm as a freshman?

NoDropOffsI recalled this tale from our family lore this week when I read about an all-boys private school in Little Rock that does not allow parents to drop off their kids’ forgotten homework, lunches, and other items mistakenly left behind. Principal Steve Straessle is serious about the policy, as evidenced by the sign placed at the front of the school.

Not surprisingly, the article and the subsequent social media sharing stirred plenty of parental debate in the comments sections, ranging from those who praised the policy to those who found it bordering on abuse.

I don’t take issue with the policy, and I suspect that it actually rankles (and teaches!) the parents far more than it does the kids. Teens are resilient—they won’t experience long-term trauma going one day without a lunch or a lacrosse stick that they left behind.

But I do understand how some parents might feel when they reach the school and see that sign. What if your student doesn’t eat breakfast and will now go to school, then to football practice, without a single morsel of food? Yes, he’ll be fine and this is far from a tragic circumstance. But I understand why his parent might be uneasy.

What if that homework assignment left behind is the difference between a B+ and the A- he’s been working so hard for all semester?

And most importantly, what if the item left behind is not a symptom of a chronic problem, but a rare dropped ball in an increasingly frenzied, pressure-packed life of a motivated, hardworking, good kid?

I think that last question is the key for parents facing the choice of saving the day or letting their student learn his or her lesson.

Are you lending a rare assist to a student with a demonstrated history of independence, a student who’s proven that he’s responsible and ready for college but, like all of us, might occasionally miss something on his ever-increasing to-do list?

Or have these assists become a routine part of what is now daily management, something that you’ve unintentionally taught your student to expect as part of Mom or Dad’s role as a parent?

If you’re in the first camp, rest easy. You’re a good parent who cares enough to step in (and then step right back out) occasionally.

But if you’re in the second camp, I think it’s worth facing some tough facts that you might be offering (or simply forcing) too much assistance, and that your student might be too dependent on you. You’re not a bad person or a bad parent. But you’re also not helping your student learn to navigate his own life. If he doesn’t start learning that lesson before he goes to college, the transition to not having Mom or Dad there to take care of everything will be far more difficult, stressful, and potentially messy.

Superheroes swoop in to occasionally save the day when nobody else can help someone in need. They don’t hover constantly to prevent people from facing any challenge at all.

P.S. Today, my brother is a graduate of Harvard. And my mother no longer hand delivers important documents for him.

More stuff = more fluff

“Can I send an extra letter of recommendation?” is one of those questions to which many families protest the answer, which is why I come back repeatedly here to a consistent theme—follow the application instructions; don’t decide that you have a better way. If a college wants extra letters of rec (or any extra materials), they’ll tell you.

This post from the University of Virginia about letters of recommendation is worth a read whether or not you are applying to UVa. First, they address the notion of sending extra, unsolicited materials to any college:

“I promise you that colleges ask for the items they want to review. There is no hidden message that we really want something else.”

The remainder of the post also does an excellent job explaining the roles of the teacher and counselor letters of recommendation in the UVa admissions process. And while the writer is not claiming that those details are necessarily true for other colleges, unless your chosen colleges tell you otherwise (there’s that theme again), applicants would be well-served following the advice in the post.

Work with what each college gives you in their application and essays. Spend your time clearly and thoughtfully answering their questions. Don’t resort to sending unsolicited extra materials in the hopes that more information will actually make you a stronger candidate. More stuff equals more fluff.

For students departing for college

For those students departing for college, here’s an article and a few past posts to help you get off to the best start.

A recent New York Times piece by Richard J. Light, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “Making the Most of College.”

A past post of mine highlighting some of the advice in Light’s book mentioned above.

One of my most read posts, this one on how to build a remarkable college career.

And two final posts, here and here, with some advice if you’re concerned about getting a job after college.

For parents with high school freshmen

Parents with freshmen just starting high school often fall into one of two camps—those who think the time for college planning is still years away, and those who worry that one seemingly innocuous decision on day one could derail their student’s college future.

I’d recommend something in between those two.

It’s too early to start strategizing for admissions to supposed dream schools (there is no magic formula for admission to selective colleges—don’t obsess over finding and following one). It’s too early to do test prep, too early to measure every decision by its reported college admissions value, and frankly, far too early to feel anxious about college.

But it’s not too early to have conversations, to teach and encourage kids to take responsibility for their educations, and to get comfortable seeking advice from good sources. Here are two past posts to help, one with lies people tell high school freshmen, and another with some advice to help freshmen get off to a strong high school start.

People who just know

Each of us has a slice of our world where we’re the expert, where our instincts allow us to just know.

A parent can just know when their child isn’t being entirely truthful.

A teacher can just know if a student isn’t grasping the material.

Successful doctors, lawyers, contractors, museum curators, orchestra conductors—they can see, hear, or sense things simply because of their deep experience in their respective fields. They’re able to just know.

Most college admissions officers would tell you that when a parent overtakes or flat-out writes her student’s college essay, they just know, too.

A student’s voice—the way they view, interpret, and describe events from their life–sounds different than a parent’s, especially in writing. And that difference is glaringly apparent to admissions officers who spend hundreds and hundreds of hours each year reading applications.

Last week during one of our spirited email discussions, many of the former admissions officers who now work as counselors at Collegewise echoed the “I just knew” sentiments when it came to parents taking over the essays. Two of them who’d worked at two of the most prestigious colleges in the country revealed that their staffs had been specifically trained to recognize the difference between a student’s writing voice and that of a parent.

Parents, I understand that you want the best for your kids. I know you think you’re helping them reach their goals when you get too involved in or even take over their college essays.

But admissions officers are very good at recognizing this behavior. And when they do, the student—not the parent—is the one who will be punished in the form of a denial. I’ve never met a college admissions officer who would ignore or otherwise excuse any portion of an essay that smacks of parental involvement.

Some parents will ignore this, convinced that their work will remain behind the scenes. You might be right if you’re lucky. But is it worth the risk?

It’s not easy to fool people who just know.

What gets measured gets managed

Activity sections in college applications look different than they used to.

In the years before I started Collegewise in 1999, many applications simply asked students to list each activity, along with any titles or associated recognition. But that made it difficult for a college to tell how committed a student had really been to one activity over another. They could see glimpses of where the student had enjoyed success. But without asking for more information, the message most applicants received was that the more activities they could list, the better.

That changed when colleges started asking for details about a student’s actual time spent participating. They asked students to list not just the years (grades 9-12) spent, but also to estimate the number of hours per week and weeks per year. That allowed colleges to differentiate between an activity in which a student had really spent significant time participating, and those that were short-term, comparatively less important commitments.

Colleges also began to make it clear that they weren’t looking for well-rounded applicants; they were looking for well-rounded classes. A student who participated in a variety of activities was less appealing than one who focused on a few substantial commitments. Colleges even came up with a term to describe the opposite of the well-rounded but unfocused applicants: “angular” students.

But the measure of time is imperfect. And as is often the case, what gets measured gets managed.

Today, many students ask how many hours of community service are “enough.” They’re more likely to diligently plod through something they don’t enjoy. They hesitate to abandon an activity that’s lost its luster for fear of giving up a demonstrated continuous commitment.

More hours per week, more weeks per year, more years during high school. If that’s what colleges want, that’s what nervous college applicants will give.

The college admissions process isn’t perfect. It’s not always fair either, as is the case with most selection processes that aren’t meritocratic. Dating and hiring work the same way–there’s no infallible process that guarantees the right choice.

But the applications, and the process, are engineered to share as much information as possible, in ways that will help admissions officers make the best choices. And today’s version of the activity section is no different.

Colleges understand that students have limited hours, days, weeks, etc. spent outside of class. How do you choose to spend those hours? Have you experienced any success? Have you made an impact on the people, the organization, or the constituency? Will you leave a legacy when you’re gone, one that will be missed?

And most importantly, have you enjoyed what you’ve done? That’s arguably the most important measurement. A student who lights up when discussing an activity is one who is most likely to channel that passion and those talents into something—similar or different—once they get to college.

It’s not about how many activities you do. It’s not about how many hours you spend doing them. It’s about whether or not you have the initiative, curiosity, and work ethic to commit to things you care about. It’s about how you use your inherent talents to make an impact. And most importantly, it’s about you. Your interests are an important part of what make you interesting. That—the entire collection—is what colleges are trying to measure.

They don’t always measure it perfectly. But if you know that’s what they’re evaluating, you can make good decisions to help you manage what’s being measured.

Here’s a past post with more on how to evaluate your activities, another about impact and how to measure it, and a final one about how interests make you interesting.