The right formula?

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report on the impact of organized sports on children, preadolescents, and adolescents. The study found that what makes sports enjoyable for kids is not the winning, but rather, “trying hard, making progress, being a good sport, and experiencing positive coaching.” The report is here, and a summary in the New York Times is here.

It might be tempting for some (competitive) readers to dismiss the findings as indicative of a failure to prepare our kids for the harsh realities of the world. But one of those realities is that you can’t always win—at sports, at work, in college admissions, etc. Not even the most successful adults have life-long wining streaks, especially if they’ve taken on real challenges and frequently put themselves in failure’s path. Wouldn’t our kids be more prepared, not less, if they could find joy in working hard, getting better, treating people well, and welcoming help from people who genuinely want them to succeed?

Sounds like the formula to me.

Greatness isn’t reserved

Jay Matthews, venerable and semi-retired education writer at the Washington Post, still resurfaces occasionally and adds his wise thoughts to calm college admissions mania, this time to remind us all about a young filmmaker who was denied from both USC and UCLA’s film schools, enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, and went on to become one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

That student was Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg is a story-worthy illustration that you don’t need to attend a famous college to be successful. But the circumstances surrounding his career path also make him a potentially less effective example. Few professions are as competitive as the film industry. They aren’t just handing out directing jobs to anyone with a degree. And yet Spielberg’s films have won 34 Academy Awards and grossed over 10 billion dollars, making him the highest earning filmmaker of all time.

How many filmmakers have achieved that level of success, regardless of where they went to college? Spielberg’s career is in many ways a well-deserved aberration. That’s why it might be easy for a reader to dismiss the example with, “Well, he’s Steven Spielberg. Of course it didn’t matter where he went to college.”

But the overarching point is not at all an aberration. Most successful people did not attend highly selective colleges. There are professions and people and societal challenges waiting for people to show up and play successful roles. Highly selective colleges can’t possibly produce enough graduates to fill all of them.

So whether or not you become as iconic in your profession as Steven Spielberg did in his, your path to get there will be rich with opportunities to learn, grow, discover your talents, and even have some fun along the way. All you have to do is attend a college where you will avail yourself of them.

Spielberg is story worthy. But the proof is there within just about every profession: greatness isn’t reserved for graduates of colleges that turn away most of their applicants.

Legal (and free) performance enhancement

Justin Verlander, a pitcher for the Houston Astros, throws a fastball well over 90 miles an hour. He’s an eight-time All-Star, winner of the 2011 American League M.V.P. and Cy Young Awards, and he helped pitch his team to a Word Series title in 2017.

One of his self-professed secrets to his success? Sleep. Verlander regularly sleeps as many as 10 hours a night. And he so vocally champions others doing the same that he’s become his teammates’ unofficial sleep consultant, as profiled here. It certainly seems like he’s onto something–even beyond his personal performance. When the team’s third baseman took Verlander’s advice and started sleeping more, he went from struggling to get on base to hitting 30 home runs.

Sometimes Verlander sleeps more than 10 hours. Sometimes, less. He listens to his body and lets it tell him how much sleep he needs.

Neomi Shah, a sleep medicine doctor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who’s quoted in the article, says this about sleep:

“It’s a legal way to improve athletic performance. . .and it goes beyond it, too, in terms of better well-being and an ability to make decisions.”

If it has that effect on a professional athlete, what effect could it have on you?

It will never be perfect

Collegewise counselor Davin S. forwarded me this New York Times article, “It’s Never Going to Be Perfect, So Just Get It Done.” The link was persnickety and really wanted to require a subscription until I somehow tricked it into revealing itself, but the gist is pretty clear: Voltaire was right—perfect really is the enemy of good. Anything worth doing will likely never be perfect. While you shouldn’t release something that doesn’t make you proud, if you hold out for perfect, your project will be on hold indefinitely.

The “perfect vs. good enough” challenge shows up often for students writing college essays and completing applications. They’ve written. They’ve revised. They’ve sought and incorporated feedback. The work is more than good enough to submit. But the pressure and anxiety take hold and drive them to seek one more opinion, try one more revision, make one more polish, over and over until they’ve not only missed perfect, but also left good enough behind.

This is one of the many reasons so many students scramble right up until the application deadlines. The search for perfect never ends until the deadline decides good enough will have to be good enough.

College applications deserve time and attention. I would never recommend an applicant complete them like a task for which done is always good enough. But when incremental improvements become unnecessary changes, you’re moving further from perfect, not closer to it. Here are two past posts, here and here, to help you tell the difference.

Uniquely yours is uniquely you

University of Virginia blogger Dean J recently posted answers in response to applicants’ questions about the essays. One response addressed several queries about the best way to either “grab the reader’s attention” or “stand out.”

“I wish whoever is telling students they have to be completely unique in their essays or that their application has to ‘stand out’ would take it down a notch. Most students write about normal things like their family, an academic interest, an activity, a piece of literature/music/art that influenced them. You can write about the same book that a dozen other people do and what will make your essay different is that your reaction to the story will be yours alone.”

I agree with the overarching point of the response, but I would add some additional nuances if I were answering the question.

The two most important words in that response are “yours alone.” The best college essays, no matter the prompt, word count, or school, are those that only the applicant could write. At Collegewise, we call this “owning your story.” And while some students may have experienced something that nobody else applying to college has, in most cases, you take ownership of a story by injecting as much detail into it as possible.

Your experience working a part-time job is not like every other student’s experience.

Your experience discovering how much you enjoy art is not like every other student’s experience.

And as related in the UVA example, your reaction to a particular book is not like every other student’s reaction.

But any one of those responses, if devoid of enough detail, could in fact say exactly the same thing that many other writers expressed. Lots of part-time workers had to juggle many responsibilities on the job. It’s not uncommon to be pleasantly surprised that you enjoyed a course. And you were not the first to find Huckleberry Finn fascinating because it gave you insight into a different period of U.S. history.

As the UVA blogger points out, you don’t need to artificially inject attention-grabbing strategy into your application. But ownership isn’t granted just because you decide to write about your experience. Ownership must be claimed by injecting the detail.

The formula we use at Collegewise:

1. Could someone else tell this story? If so, inject more detail.
2. If you can’t find enough detail to take ownership, choose a different story.

You are, in fact, one of a kind. There is no carbon copy of you applying to college. And those stories that are uniquely yours? They’re what make you unique.

Check your progress

Parents, imagine you have a meeting scheduled with a co-worker and receive a call from the colleague’s parent requesting that the meeting be rescheduled to allow their (grown) child to fulfill a conflicting commitment.

Or what if you were a manger and received a call from the parent of one of your direct reports wanting to speak with you about their kid’s performance and how to improve it?

What if the colleague who was assigned to work with you on your latest project ended up doing so because their parent called to advocate for the opportunity on their kid’s behalf?

How would it affect the way you view this person? How would it impact your work together moving forward? Would it increase or decrease the level of respect and trust?

These scenarios likely sound ridiculous (though, perhaps surprisingly, they do occur). But what steps are you taking to ensure that your own child doesn’t grow up to expect the same level of parental involvement from you?

Self-sufficiency is a process, not an overnight transformation. But a process is always a series of steps designed to achieve a particular goal. And it’s worth taking a moment to occasionally check the progress, both yours and your student’s.

The difference between ordinary and remarkable

Seth Godin’s latest post, “The $50,000 an hour gate agent,” really resonated with me. And you don’t need to be a gate agent, or even a traveler, to embrace the lesson here.

Whatever role you play—teammate, classmate, counselor, friend, coworker, etc.—what would it take for you to make the kind of impression that this gate agent did?

A little caring, a little effort, a little oomph is often all it takes. But the difference is what moves you from ordinary to remarkable.

Everyone = anyone

College applicants—and professional recruiters—can learn a lot about the art of presentation from the way most businesses write job posts.

Too many companies post job openings that include a lot of words without actually saying anything.

A few real examples I found with a brief Google search:

“Seeking accomplished executive able to drive results through high engagement, collaboration, and accountability.”

“Must be a strong, self-motivated, self-directed leader with the ability to effectively operate and deliver high-quality results in a fast-paced environment.”

“Deliver stories and activations within the primary stream of the brand process and create sufficient organizational focus to achieve the revenue goals.”

Sure, the sentences are technically correct in that they are free of spelling and grammar mistakes. But it’s hard to imagine any strong candidate reading these posts alone and deciding, “I think this sounds like the perfect role for me!”

Consider what’s at stake for both the company and the candidate when seeking to fill a position. The company will invest time, energy, and money into whoever is hired. Their performance will almost certainly impact the business and their coworkers. And for just about any applicant, taking a new job is a big deal. In saying yes to an offer, they’re inevitably saying no to something else, like a different offer, or their current job, or even their current city or career path.

With so much on the line, why resort to language that sounds just like every other (terrible) job post? Don’t both parties deserve a thoughtful description of the company, the role, and the type of person who would likely be successful within both? Doesn’t the entire process work better when the ad draws in the right people, and even repels those who would ultimately never thrive in this opportunity?

There are two lessons here:

(1) Presenting something that reads, looks, or sounds like all the others is a lousy way to stand out.

(2) Whether you’re writing a college essay, website copy, or a job post, don’t use bland, recycled wording and descriptions just for the sake of filling the space. Be clear. Be direct. Be specific. Say something. Sound like you.

Presenting like everyone reduces you to just anyone.

P.S. In Collegewise, we’ve built a company we believe is unlike any other. And we’ve given our job posts the thoughtful care and attention to reflect just that.

Don’t get duped

They’re baaaack…

To the annual frustration and ire of good counselors and admissions officers everywhere, students across the country are receiving notifications that they have been nominated for membership to an exclusive, prestigious honor society, one that will open doors to scholarships and impress colleges. All they have to do to avail themselves of the purported benefits? Pay the membership fee.

Don’t do it. They’re scams. All of them.

It’s difficult to be direct with families about this once they and their student have understandably become excited about the nomination. The presentation, a decorative, heavyweight mailing with the embossed invitation and certificate of nomination, certainly feels legit. But the alternative is to allow families to fork over money for a membership that will never deliver all–or any–of the benefits it promises.

I’ve written about this before, so rather than revisit the warning in a new writeup, here’s a past post featuring a quote from Collegewise Chief Academic Officer (who also worked at Caltech and University of Chicago), Arun Ponnusamy, with a particularly effective takedown of the organization currently making their annual pilgrimage into students’ mailboxes, the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS).

You can also find numerous complaints about this organization on the Better Business Bureau’s website.

Even good companies experience customer service challenges. But I would never engage with any organization that has to spend this much time defending itself and its practices in response to unhappy customers who feel they were duped.

Make things better

In the “Nepotism” episode of the iconic workplace comedy The Office, bumbling boss Michael hires his nephew, Luke, to work as an intern. And it’s immediately clear to everyone but Uncle Michael that Luke is not a good addition to the team, as Luke is unable to muster any effort at all to do the job well.

He not only arrives late with the morning coffee, but also orders the wrong drinks for just about everyone.

When asked to rush a shipment of samples to a client, he forgets to complete the job and leaves the shipment in the trunk of his car.

Devoid of initiative, he does nothing until he’s asked to do anything, choosing instead to look at his phone, play games on the computer, aim the laser pointer at people’s heads, etc.

But what’s most frustrating (to both coworkers and Office viewers) is Luke’s attitude. He’s not at all bothered by his mistakes. He makes no effort to apologize or to improve. He takes no pride in his work. He does less than the bare minimum and even that seems taxing to him.

Can you imagine someone like Luke asking for a reference or a letter of recommendation from a supervisor? What could someone on that job possibly point to as an example of Luke’s contribution or potential? The writer would have nothing to work with because Luke did nothing at work.

But the episode can be a good reminder of how much potential there is to contribute in just about any role.

What if Luke had treated that internship like the proving ground it is to show future potential employers what kind of impact he makes?

What if he’d made the effort to do what was asked of him a little better and a little faster than he was expected to?

What if he’d looked around and found ways to contribute beyond what was asked of him, like taking out the garbage or restocking the break room or alerting someone when the supplies were running low?

What if he’d given his boss and his coworkers dozens of examples to cite about why work got a little better when Luke came aboard?

It wouldn’t have made for funny television. But it’s exactly how to approach any worthwhile commitment: exert the effort to make things better.

For more on this, here’s a past post on how to thrive at your part-time job, and another on the value of internships.