What will you do in the off-season?

Professional athletes have an off-season. Their bodies and minds couldn’t sustain a year-round practice and game schedule without time to rest and recover. At season’s end, they embrace the downtime, the chance to be free of the competitive pressure that comes with constantly moving from one practice and game to the next. Yes, they may work on aspects of their game and get in shape for the coming season. But they also understand that if they don’t seize the opportunity for rest, they’ll never be game-ready for the on-season.

In the unnecessarily escalating arms race of college admissions, summer has taken on a new meaning for many kids. Instead of welcoming the no-more-pencils approach that once signaled an off-season, for many students summer is now like its own semester, with study and prep and activities that fill the hours and the days.

It’s healthy to stay productive during the summer. Spending three months doing nothing but sleeping in and watching YouTube videos isn’t a compelling experience for even the most enthusiastic of off-season embracers. But a student whose summer days are just a string of practices, tutors, rehearsals, etc. is like an athlete without an off-season. It’s unsustainable for even the most driven.

Students, make sure to balance summer productivity with healthy doses of rest, friends, and frivolity. There isn’t a single college that would want you to spend every waking summer second increasing your competitive advantage. In fact, you’ll be even more prepared at game time if you embrace the spirit of the off-season.

Writing is the power to persuade

Seth Godin shares some great insight in his latest post, reminding us that good writing is “organized thinking on behalf of persuasion,” a powerful skill available to anyone willing to develop it.

“Writing is your opportunity to stand out, to pitch in and to make a difference. And you don’t need a permit or equipment. You don’t need an insider’s edge, or money either. Writing may be the skill with the highest return on investment of all. Because writing is a symptom of thinking.”

One great email

My brother has been searching for a dog-walker to take over summer strolling duties with his canines. And he forwarded me an email he received from a high school student interested in the gig.

Everything, from the subject line, to the tone, to the information provided, was pitch-perfect. She introduced herself. She explained her interest and her availability. She expressed a desire to meet my brother and his dog at a convenient time—everything that an introductory email from an interested job candidate should be. As my brother told me:

“I loved the quick response and enthusiasm. Clearly she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make sure she gets the job.”

And no surprise, he hired her.

To be fair, I’d count this entire skillset as one of the rare places where kids today have actually fallen a step behind kids of yesterday. When I was in high school, the only way for teens to have taken advantage of an opportunity like this would have been to pick up the phone, call the adult, and do everything this student did in her email. Most parents would not have taken over that step lest their student be out of the running for any position of responsibility. We interacted with adults. Even those of us with paper routes growing up had to go door to door just to collect our money from the customer.

Times have changed, but they’ve also presented a wonderful opportunity for kids and their parents.

Students today can stand out by showing the initiative to seek out an opportunity. They can make an impression by clearly communicating. They can ask intelligent questions about the opportunity and demonstrate that they can be trusted with the responsibility. Actions like that make an even bigger impression today than they did when I was a teenager. Best of all, those skills will bring them more opportunities of interest, help them get into college, and develop the skills they’ll need to be successful once they’ve walked out from under their roofs.

That’s the kind of learning this dog walker has secured for herself. And it all happened because of one great email.

The best route?

Six months after moving to Seattle in 2012, I still didn’t know how to get anywhere. Other than the grocery store and a few places right in my neighborhood, I had almost no geographical awareness. And the reason was obvious to me. Before any departure in my car, I plugged the destination into my phone and let GPS do the rest. No thinking. No choosing between available routes. I was following instructions, but I wasn’t learning. Nothing became more familiar, even after repeatedly taking the same route. So I literally and figuratively unplugged. I’d look at the map once to figure out how to get to my destination, then let my own brain do the work to remember and adjust when necessary. In just six weeks, I knew my way around far better than I had at any point in the previous six months.

It’s not particularly surprising science, but there’s evidence that consistently relying on GPS dulls the brain’s ability to navigate. Yes, it’s helpful technology and I’ll admit that I still use it frequently. But it’s also emblematic of an important, larger reminder: learning requires thinking.

And this is why it’s important for parents not to step in and run our kids’ lives as they get older. When a parent makes every decision, when a parent makes the choice between available options, or when a parent just does the task for the student, we become the GPS. And our students become dependent drivers who can’t find their own way anywhere without step-by-step instructions.

Everyone gets lost occasionally. But the more thinking and learning we let our kids do for themselves, the more likely they are to choose the best route.

For high school counselors: be selfless, and selfish

High school counselors are a selfless breed of professionals. One more hour of work, one more meeting, one more email or voicemail or question to answer—so often they cheerfully say “yes,” driven by the desire to help the kids they serve. While the uninformed outsider might make a flippant comment about those counselors getting “summers off” as if it’s an easy gig, it’s difficult for me to think of a group of professionals more richly deserving of a break from serving and the space to do what they want to do.

But I also know how many of those same counselors just aren’t wired to trade selflessness for a bit of selfishness, even when given the opportunity to do so. If you struggle with the balance and want to find a way to make the most of your time off, both personally and professionally, here are two past posts that might help: one with my summer suggestions for high school counselors, and another with Patrick O’Connor’s suggestions of what not to do over summer break.

High school counselors, I hope you’re able to do whatever’s best for you to make the forthcoming summer one that recharges and refreshes you to come back to the very important work you do for your students.

For colleges: three ways to improve your FAQs

The ease of electronic communication makes it easy for interested students to fire off questions to college admissions offices, and most responders are happy to give good information in return (especially when the question comes from the student, not the parent). But it can become a grind for the staff when the same questions come up over and over again, particularly when the answers are easily located with a cursory read of the website. If you work for a college that offers an FAQ section or are considering penning one to include on your website, here are three tips to help you help students, and to give you some relief from the relentlessly repeated questions.

1. Poll the answerers
If the goal is to preemptively answer the most frequently asked questions, make sure the questions you select are actually frequently asked. The best way to do that is to poll the staff members who’ve spent the most time actually answering the inquiries. Just ask, “What three questions do you answer most repeatedly?” My guess is that they’ll answer without even having to think about the response. And those topics deserve a spot on the FAQ page.

2. Make a top ten list
A section with 50 FAQs is great quantity. But it also invites impatient web visitors to abandon the FAQ and revert back to email. Instead, make a top ten list and post it prominently. A link entitled “Here are the answers to the ten most frequently asked questions” will attract attention and subsequent clicks.

3. Explore each question in more depth over time
The questions are repeated for a reason—those asks are on the top of students’ minds. So give them more than just the short answer on the FAQ. Write a longer answer that provides context and explanations, and then post a link to the more detailed response. Share it on social media or on your admissions blog. You’ll be giving students more in-depth information about the topics they’re most interested in, and doing so at times when those students are most likely to need the guidance.

Constants emerge over time

David Epstein, author of the forthcoming Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, penned an opinion piece in the New York Times  last week entitled, “You Don’t Want a Child Prodigy.” Epstein argues that the most elite performers, from athletes to musicians, didn’t specialize early. In their younger years, these elite adults sampled different activities, developing a range of skills and experiences before finding the field where they’d one day reach the very highest levels. Statistics, experience, and just plain common sense tell us that most of us—and our children—aren’t likely to reach the elite levels of the Roger Federers and Antonio Vivaldis (both of whom are mentioned in the article) during our lifetimes. They’re called “elite” for a reason. But there’s still a great deal of application for high school students here, regardless of their performance levels inside or outside the classroom.

A shift took place in admissions in the late 90’s when colleges and counselors began advising students that the term “well-rounded” wasn’t necessarily an admissions strength. In the growing drive to get accepted to famous colleges, many students had progressed through high school amassing long lists of varied interests—leadership, community service, sports, etc. The logic of the new approach was that those students who’d achieved a higher level of impact within a chosen interest were more likely to stand out in a pile of high-achieving applicants. And that advice, combined with an obsession with prestigious colleges, drove many families to push their students to find a passion early in high school and then stick with it.

The advice wasn’t and still isn’t necessarily misguided.

While there’s nothing wrong with a student who spends four years of high school picking things up and putting them right back down (they’re kids, after all), the resulting college admissions challenge is that an application full of activities that only lasted a short time makes it difficult for a college to ascertain what kind of impact this student could make when interest and energy are applied consistently.

The antipode for that circumstance, however, is not to force kids to pick one interest early and stick with it. In fact, that’s almost always a recipe for burnout and resentment. Most kids are likely to shop around a bit before they land on those things that both draw and sustain their interest. They’ll have some starts and stops. Those choices aren’t necessarily a sign of a lack of fortitude or commitment. They can also be a sign of curiosity, growth, and learning. Most adults have experienced fits where a new hobby or interest they were excited about lost its luster. Constants need time to emerge.

For the rare student who legitimately discovers a sustained passion early in life and finds joy in it, great. Dive in and stay in as long as it’s both enjoyable and rewarding.

But for those teens who resist pledging their undying devotion to one area, don’t worry that they’re somehow lacking forward college admissions progress. Encourage them to honor their commitments. But let them find those things that light them up, whenever those lights happen to start shining. Those are the areas where they’re most likely to thrive, to make an impact, and to show colleges just how much they’re capable of in whatever interest they pursue on campus.

Protecting downtime

Julie Lythcott-Haims added her post, “Making Childhood Healthy Again,” to the website of the School Superintendents Association. There are a number of important insights here for parents and students, but this particular one struck me, especially in the age of overscheduled kids whose lives have become a constant state a busyness.

“Downtime can exist only in the absence of constant busyness. It allows kids to process and reflect upon what they’ve experienced and to decide for themselves what to do next. This builds resilience, imagination and critical thinking. We have to prioritize downtime and reduce the number of activities accordingly.”

Intuition and assumptions

Mark Kantrowitz’s latest post, “Is there an Income Cutoff on Eligibility for Financial Aid?,” contains some great information and advice, though I wish he’d chosen a different title. The question “Do we have too much money to qualify for financial aid?” can induce some understandable eye-rolling. But the article is actually about the inherent risks of relying on intuition or assumptions rather than applying and allowing the financial aid officers to do their jobs. And for families whose financial concerns are far greater than having too much money to qualify for aid, I think they’ll find the information will leave them encouraged about their own aid eligibility, but also careful not to allow their own intuition or assumptions to get in the way of the aid they need.

He said it himself

From The Atlantic:

“The new SAT does not tell students or anyone else how smart students are, or how capable they are of learning new things.”

David Coleman
CEO of the College Board (the company who administers the SAT)