Counselors always find a way

It’s hard for me to think of a more consistently vocal champion for high school counselors than Patrick O’Connor. That’s why I always enjoy when he pens a post advising his fellow professionals in the field. Patrick treats counseling like an art and counselors as the artists deserving of respect, attention, and support. Every counselor faces challenges unique to their school, constituency, and caseload. But Patrick has seen and experienced enough in his storied career to somehow make his advice applicable in some way to just about anyone generous enough to do this important work in the high schools.

His most recent piece, “How are your Seniors doing?” advises that counselors schedule some lunches with groups of seniors, maybe with the sponsorship of a local pizza joint. Now, it would be easy to dismiss his advice with totally legitimate counters:

Lunch is my time, the only time I get to myself during the day.

Who has space to eat lunch with seniors? Every lunch is a working lunch for me.

I have too many kids to serve, and not enough funding to serve them, to set up pizza parties during the school day.

But you don’t need sponsorship, pizza, or even long lunches to embrace the overarching message. As Patrick puts it:

“Right now, seniors and counselors are stuck in a rut of the mundane. As usual, the answer to getting back in high gear lies in supporting one another. You can find a way.”

You control your returns

Some students, especially those fixated on highly selective colleges, approach high school framing every decision around the question, “What would my dream college(s) like?” Learning more about schools that interest you, ensuring you take the required standardized tests, submitting a completed application on time–that’s just smart college planning. But choosing your activities or your interests or your personality based on what you think a very short list of colleges will appreciate is a lousy way to be happy and an even worse way to be competitive for college.

The alternative path is to channel that energy and work into things that you enjoy learning, doing, and experiencing. Not because it’s easier (in fact, you’re likely to work even harder when you’re doing things you love), but because it puts you back in control. You choose what you want to do. You decide how involved you want to be. You make the call if you’re enjoying it and want to continue.

If everything you do is predicated on a potential admission that will arrive months or years from now, you’ve given the college a lot of power over your life without promising anything in return. When you control your choices, you control your returns.

Our praise and their pride

Praise is a powerful instrument, especially when delivered from parents to their kids. Although some teens may go to great lengths to appear otherwise, they thrive on parent approval. Parental praise has byproducts, as teens are likely to seek out opportunities to repeat the praiseworthy behavior.

There’s no itemized list of good and bad praises, and let’s not inject unnecessary worry or strategy into parental expressions of admiration towards their kids. But there are two particular types of praise that can actually have the opposite of their intended effect:

1. Praising intelligence
“You’re so smart” certainly has a nice ring to it—who wouldn’t want to hear that? But in addition to praising something the student had virtually nothing to do with (intelligent kids should be praising their parents for passing on good genes), the bigger issue is that research has shown that praising kids for innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.

When an intellectual challenge eventually presents itself, students who identify as intelligent can panic. This is one of the reasons so many students who attend highly selective colleges suffer from impostor syndrome on arrival. It’s a rude awakening to find out on day one that your former moniker as “the smartest kid in class” no longer applies.

A few alternatives: Praise their curiosity, effort, or willingness to take on challenging subjects. Those are repeatable behaviors regardless of how readily the student can understand what’s being presented.

2. Comparative praising
“You scored the most points,” or “You were the best soloist tonight,” or “You got the highest grade in the class!” are praises based on comparison. The message they give your student is that to be praiseworthy, someone else needs to be less praiseworthy. Nobody’s suggesting that we should divide our praise equally among every participant. But your student’s not always going to be the top scorer, performer, or achiever. To set them up for future success, praise the traits that put them in those positions: their hard work, commitment to their goals, willingness to take on challenges, etc.

When in doubt, praise away. If your worst crime as a parent is that you praised often but not perfectly, that’s a pretty great track record. But if we can be mindful about what we’re praising, our kids will be more likely to continue doing those very things that earned our praise and their pride.

Purported productivity

I came across an article yesterday—and I’m purposely not sharing the link here—about “microscheduling.” The latest in a never-ending series of purported productivity hacks that actually just help you add even more hours—and more work—to an already full day, microschedulers plan every hour, and in many cases, every minute of their day, from their meals to their email responses to their bathroom breaks. I couldn’t help but wonder how many hours all this meticulous microscheduling takes–hours that could have been spent actually getting those scheduled tasks done.

I hope we can all agree that being successful in school, in work, and in life requires that you regularly and willingly put your head down and focus on doing great work that matters. If you spend most of your day watching TV and eating Cheetos, you’re not learning, contributing, or benefiting as much as those who fill that time in ways that leave them proud of their efforts.

But our culture has somehow gotten to a place where we glamorize work-at-all-costs mentality. Long days, lost sleep, schedules without free time, overflowing inboxes, working nights and weekends, constantly available online—it’s all part of this narrative that those who get ahead are those who make the sacrifice. Sleep, family, fun, leisure, friends, sanity—you’ve got to give something up if you want to make it today!

But this notion that adding more hours and more work will automatically lead to more success is demonstrably untrue. Nobody is impressed just by how many hours you worked this week. Nobody cares how little sleep you had. Nobody will rave about you just because you answer emails at all hours. What gets you ahead is the work you produce. Yes, the quantity maters, but not nearly as much as the quality does.

Productivity isn’t a willingness to let work seep into every part of your life. Productivity is producing great work from focused but manageable workloads. That’s not the lazy way—it’s the effective way.

So before you add more hours, or yet another way to cram more work into non-work time, consider not just how much you’re trying to do, but how much uninterrupted, focused time you’re giving yourself to do it. Your reputation is built on the quality of your work, not on your willingness to sacrifice via hacks of purported productivity.

Ten ways to make valuable contributions

Too many high school students view their success in group activities as measured only by accolades or official titles. But there are lots of ways you can make valuable contributions that your group—and the colleges you apply to—will appreciate. Here are ten suggestions.

1. Improve relationships with constituents.
Be the server at the coffee shop who remembers people’s names, the member of student government who engages with the student body, or the lighting tech who gets others interested in coming to the performance. Helping connect the group with those outside of it is a valuable public relations contribution.

2. Solve the problems other people can’t solve.
What’s a challenge your group faces repeatedly and just can’t seem to solve? The ability to spot solutions is a valuable skill that can make you invaluable to the group. If you’ve got that talent, put it to work and let your fixes fly.

3. Manage complex projects.
Managing a fundraiser, planning a junior prom, organizing a team retreat—these are big jobs with a lot of moving parts, and plenty of potential for things to go sideways. But some people are at their best when they’re taking a complex job with a variety of inputs and shipping it out the door.

4. Inspire, teach, and make others better.
Ever seen that person that the rest of the group will follow to do almost anything? Those people are irreplaceable. And they don’t need to be granted authority to do it.

5. Become the domain expert.
What if you became the expert on once slice of your group’s work? The runner who knows the most about how elite distance runners train in the off-season, the writer with a deep understanding of the role of journalism in reporting news, the photographer who knows so much about lenses and exposures and lighting that they always get the perfect shot. When you know your stuff, and you share that knowledge, you’re making a valuable contribution.

6. Be a maximizer.
Do you look at things that are already good and ask, “How can this be even better?” Groups sometimes spend so much time fixing what’s broken that they miss opportunities to maximize their areas of strength. Amplifying bright spots is a sure way to improve just about anything, and if you’re the one who sees those opportunities, the group will look to you to keep sharing your talent.

7. Make new people feel at home.
It’s hard to be the new employee on his first shift, the recently promoted player at her first practice with the varsity team, or the new kid at school joining the history class discussion on day one. Can you make them feel at home? Can you make that transition a little easier so they can get comfortable and start making their own contributions? Most group memberships in high school don’t last forever, and turnover means there will always be new people joining who could use a friendly welcome to make things easier.

8. See what’s possible.
Not everyone can peer into the future and envision a way to make it better. In a group, instead of saying, “This is what we’ve always done,” this version says, “I see a new and better way.” Do you see that vision? Can you communicate it clearly and enthusiastically to your group? If so, chances are you’ll get some followers who support your vision. And once you’ve got followers, you’re a leader, with or without a leadership position.

9. Unleash your enthusiasm.
Are you inherently positive, always able to spot the good in any situation? Are you quick to smile and reluctant to let a bad mood get the best of you? Genuine enthusiasm is like a group pick-me-up. It makes everyone a little happier, a little more positive, and consequently, a little better at what they do.

10. Become the best.
I listed this last because it’s the hardest and the most exclusive. But it still deserves a place on the list. If you’re the very best musician in the orchestra, player on the tennis team, or mathlete in the math club, you’re making the group better with your excellence. If your talent and hard work puts you in that position, assume the mantle proudly. But don’t forget that there are plenty of other ways to contribute, and the point of being in any group is to help the group—not just yourself—be successful.

Independent counselors: Why do customers choose the competition?

If you’re an independent counselor looking to build your customer base, here’s a counterintuitive exercise. Imagine a customer who chose the competition instead of you. Then spend an hour writing an explanation—from the customer’s point of view—about why they did so. It’s even more powerful if you write it in the first person.

This is an exercise in empathy. It doesn’t work if the answer is entirely about features and benefits. And it won’t work if you discount the customer as being uninformed or otherwise flawed. That might seem true to you, but it’s not the reality that matches their world view (if it were, they would have made a different choice). So assign the most noble intentions you can, and try to be as genuine as possible.

Some examples:

I liked you, and my student liked you. But all my friends go to the competitor down the street. If I follow them, no matter what happens, they’ll never judge me or say I made the wrong choice.

Your office felt fun, informal, and almost frivolous. I want my child to take their college planning more seriously, not less so. I didn’t get the sense you were going to drive that change.

I know you’re the most popular counselor in town. You don’t need our business, and I felt that from you when we met together. I don’t want my kid to be just another student on a counselor caseload. I need this to matter more than it seemed to matter to you.

It’s really difficult to do this well. You’ve got to put yourself inside someone else’s head, take on their world view, and express how they saw you and your business. But if you can do it, it will open up all kinds of insights about why people who go elsewhere make that choice.

And here’s the key. If you can get really good at understanding why people go elsewhere, you can get even better at identifying, attracting, and delighting the people who are more inclined to choose you.

How do you show up?

When you arrive at school, at your club meeting, your part-time job, community service project, or family dinner table, how do you show up?

Do you show up reluctantly, arms figuratively or literally folded, anticipating everything that could be unenjoyable, regrettable, or otherwise negative about the experience?

Or do you show up enthusiastically, expecting the best, eagerly waiting for what’s possible rather than problematic?

That posture is a choice. That choice predisposes you to look for evidence of what you expected. And we tend to get what we look for.

If you feel like things just aren’t going your way, if you’re in that camp of seeing all the advantages that other people are getting, leaving you somehow missing out, you might turn things around just by showing up a little differently.

Seniors, are you honoring your application promises?

A college application is a series of promises. At the most basic level, it’s a promise that the information you’ve shared is accurate and complete. But you’re also promising to keep being the person you’ve presented. Here are four promises you’re making within your application, along with (where appropriate) some recommendations about actions to take if it becomes clear you’re going to break the promise.

The viability of your contact information 
Yes, if you change your email address or phone number after you apply to college, it’s worth updating them so they can get in touch with you. But it’s just as important to keep the implied promise that you will receive—and respond to when asked to do so—communication colleges send you. This is the time to check your email once a day. Check your spam filter a few times a week. Once you apply, most colleges will only contact you with requests for additional information or to share updates on your status. Make sure you keep your promise to tend to the channels you’ve asked them to use to contact you.

Your class schedule
You made a promise to your college that you’ll finish the classes you told them you were taking and that you planned to take. If your current or future schedule has changed in any way from that which was listed on your application, you need to update the college with a new promise. Course changes are not inherently bad, but it’s worth a conversation with your high school counselor before you make that choice (and if you make the choice and need advice around communicating it to the college).

Your grades
Most colleges admit students provisionally, which is a nice way of saying, “You’re in as along as nothing happens that would make us change our minds.” A precipitous drop in grades is one of the most common reasons a college will rescind an admissions decision. That’s why “Keep your grades up” is common–and also imperative–advice. What qualifies as a “precipitous drop”? There’s no universal definition, and colleges evaluate those scenarios on a case by case basis. But while I’ve never seen a student who went from A’s to B’s in two classes lose their admission, when C’s or D’s start showing up, especially for students who presented a very different academic record on the application, it’s cause for concern. Don’t let the senior party start too early.

Your disciplinary record
Remember those questions on the application that asked if you’d ever been suspended or otherwise disciplined? If those answers have changed since you applied, visit your high school counselor right away and discuss how you should update the colleges. Some applicants run the other direction of that advice and hope that by keeping quiet, the story will just go away and a college will never know. That’s a risky strategy that I don’t recommend. A college is almost certainly going to find out, and you’re better off getting in front of that story than you will be reacting to it.

I understand it might feel counterintuitive to voluntarily share news with a college that might hurt your application chances. But that news is going to come to light at some point. And the worst possible outcome is to suffer the consequences when it’s too late to accept an offer of admission from another college. And in fact, preemptively sharing the news is a good indication that you’re a mature student who can be counted on to honor your promises.

Got questions about overparenting?

If you’ve got questions for—or just want to learn from the wisdom of—Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, she’ll be featured on a live Q & A webinar on Tuesday, February 19, at 8:30 p.m. EST. All the details are here.

Home/school balance

Many professionals struggle with their work/life balance. I’ve never met an adult who said, “I wish that my boss and my job-related stress and my performance at work would play a bigger role in my life at home.”

And yet many kids today are struggling with home/school balance.

Parents, what if your home became the place where kids could be free of:

  • Measurement of performance
  • Comparisons to other kids
  • Judgment based on grades or test scores
  • Suggestions to fix their weaknesses
  • Pressure to succeed by subjective metrics
  • Recurring conversations about college admissions
  • Imposed guilt for mistakes made

Not a home free of expectations or bloated with universal praise. But a place where the love is unconditional, where a student’s performance as a family member is more important than their performance as a college applicant.

How would that change the environment at home? And how might it embolden them to thrive in the environment at school?

Both might improve with a better home/school balance.