What did we write about for our college essays?

Every Friday at Collegewise, we ask everyone in the company a lighthearted question, like:

  • What was your worst fashion faux pas?
  • If you could teach any class, what would it be?
  • What’s the most awkward thing that ever happened to you on a date?

We call these our “Friday Fun” questions. We share the responses with everyone in the company, and participation is entirely optional. It’s been a great way for us to get to know each other better and to have a little Friday Fun to end our work weeks.

Our most recent question: What did you write about for your college essay?

Some of our counselors can be justifiably proud of their college essay insight when they were seventeen, but many more (myself included) submitted responses like:

I remember writing a particularly cringe-worthy essay about my participation in my school’s literary magazine. Thank God that publication pre-dated the digital age!

I’ve lived in shame about this [choice of topic] for years and especially since coming to Collegewise.

That time I studied abroad and met an artist in Spain who drew a beautiful portrait that made me reflect on my life, values, and every other cliche possible.

I don’t remember the specifics but it was about building a roaring campfire and how all these experiences in my life were the tinder and kindling. Maybe logs, too. I’m horrified even thinking about it.

How I learned life lessons on the swim team. I KNOW. I AM MAD AT ME TOO.

The topic wasn’t the worst, but I’m SURE the way I wrote about it was.

These counselors all went on to selective colleges (some to highly selective schools). Some went on to work as admissions officers or high school counselors. And all of them are successful college counselors at Collegewise today who can help high school students find and share the kind of stories they won’t just be proud of today, but also many tomorrows from now.

I share these snippets to remind readers that while the essays are important, they’re still just one part of the application. And more importantly, these wonderfully self-deprecating essay revelations from our Collegewise counselors are just yet another reminder that lots of successful people today didn’t do everything perfectly in high school.

If you work hard, make the most of college, and try to be a good person, things have a way of working out, regardless of your test scores, activities, or essay topic back in high school.

For parents: let kids prepare for life

A friend asked me this week to help him revise his resume. Anyone who’s made a resume has grappled with similar questions. How do you describe your experience and accomplishments in such a limited space? How can you stand out when you’re reduced to paper? How do you reconcile the fact that you’re sending this short document to people who don’t know you but ultimately get to judge and select—or not select—you? It can be challenging, humbling, and frustrating all at the same time. The good news is that (1) you get better at it over time, and (2) you can start learning how to do it in high school.

A college application might be the first time that a student completes an application for something this important, but it certainly won’t be the last. Presenting yourself in writing, doing an interview, asking for letters of reference—all of these are introductions to things that you will need to do again during and after college.

In fact, the same can be said for many high school experiences. Facing a challenge. Asking for help. Advocating for themselves. Managing conflict. Overcoming disappointment. Learning from failure. Making an impact. Leaving a legacy. Once kids leave high school, they’ll never need to learn to drive, take the SAT, or find a date for the prom again. But just about everything else will be repeated in some way at a later point. And some of those experiences will never stop appearing.

That’s yet another reason why it’s so important for parents not to do everything for their kids. When you take on every task, challenge, or opportunity for them, you take away their opportunities to learn.

Let your kids approach the teacher or counselor on their own to ask for help. Let them search, apply, and interview for the part-time job instead of securing something for them. Don’t protect them from every disappointment, sweep away all the obstacles, or create a world that won’t resemble the one they’ll live in once they leave college.

Instead, allow them to learn their own lessons. Sure, a parent can answer questions. Guide, support, and cheer them on. But high school, activities, and the college application process are great training grounds if you’ll allow them to be. Students aren’t just trying to get into college. They’re trying to prepare for life, too.

Is your older sibling applying to college?

If you’ve got an older brother or sister in the house who’s going through the college application process, you might feel like the only thing you can do is watch passively from the sidelines until it’s your turn to apply. But there are actually things you can do to help your sibling now, and yourself later. Here are five suggestions.

1. Use this time as an opportunity to learn.
One of the most useful parts of watching an older sibling apply to and eventually attend college is that you can learn from their experiences. Now, you might not be all that interested in tuning in to hear them talk about tests or applications or essays. But someday not all that long from now, you’ll be immersed in your own college search and application process. Anything you learn now can only make you savvier when it’s your turn. In fact, I’ve seen many students reference their older siblings’ experiences when essay prompts or interviewers ask why the applicant is interested in a particular school.

2. Be patient with your sibling and your parents.
You might have noticed some changes in your family over the last few months. Are they more stressed? Does it seem like all they talk about is college? Does it feel like some members of the family have lost their focus on what you’re doing? Not all families experience this kind of admissions-related stress and anxiety (in fact, we preach at Collegewise that the process doesn’t have to be that way). But it’s very real for those who do, and it’s not uncommon for some shrapnel to land on the younger siblings. It’s not fair, but the good news is that it will pass. And when it’s your turn, you’ll get your own doses of attention (hopefully with less anxiety). So if you can, be patient with your sibling and your parents.

3. Be your sibling’s respite from admissions talk.
One of the best things you can do for your sibling is not talk about college at all unless they bring it up first. For many of you, this might not be a stretch, especially if you’re absolutely sick of hearing about essays and applications and deadlines all the time. But I mention it here because it’s good to know when any of us are actually doing something helpful for someone we love. Don’t feel like you’re failing your sibling if you default to talking about football, movies, music, or whatever else you’d talk about outside of college season. Be the sibling you’ve always been, not yet another person in their life who’s fixated on college.

4. Celebrate their admissions decisions.
This is advice that we give to parents all the time. An offer of admission from a college, even one from a college that’s not high on a student’s dream list, deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated. And parents aren’t the only ones who can really lift an applicant’s spirits by joining in. When an acceptance arrives, be excited for your sibling. Offer sincere congratulations, a hug, a high-five–anything at all that shows you’re happy for your big brother or sister. They might act like they don’t care at all what you (or your parents) think. But trust me, they’ll notice (and remember) it.

5. Consider how you want your future process to look.
Watching an older sibling go through their own college process is like a sneak preview of what yours could be like. But brothers and sisters are different people, and there’s no law saying that you have to approach the process the same way. Which parts of your sibling’s process looked enjoyable? Which parts looked difficult? What would you do the same, and more importantly, what would you like to do differently when it’s your turn? For example, you might think that traveling to visit colleges looks like an exciting thing that you’ll partake in when it’s your turn. But if you watched your sibling frantically struggle to complete their applications in time for the deadlines, that’s probably something you’d like to avoid. The more you use this time to observe, to learn, and to consider what you want your college process to be like, the more likely you are to get the experience you want when it’s your turn.

Everybody isn’t doing it

Parents know (and remember!) what peer pressure looks like for kids. They want to fit in. They want to be accepted. They don’t want to be singled out. “Everybody’s doing it” can be a persuasive teen argument even when it’s not true.

But peer pressure also exists for parents, especially around college admissions. And if you’re the parent of a high school student, you’ve likely seen, heard, or experienced it. But just in case, here are a few examples:

You’ve got to start test prep early these days.

Northwestern really likes leadership, so we’re lining up some positions for our son.

It’s just so competitive these days. Kids need to stand out to get into a decent college.

We have friends on the board who’ve promised to tag her application.

The summer leagues are the best place for coaches to see these kids.

He’ll have over 100 hours of community service, so we’ll have him write his essay about that.

Get her out of that class if you can. That teacher is terrible. Our son got a “C” because she didn’t like him.

You’ve got to have a private counselor. The counselors at school don’t know anything.

Yes, this might sound like run-of-the-mill college talk for engaged parents, but it’s not. It’s parental peer pressure. Those words are telling you:

We’re doing something for our student that you aren’t doing for yours.

Our student has an advantage that your student doesn’t.

We have insight that you don’t have.

We’re taking this more seriously than you are.

We’re doing it right—you’re doing it wrong.

Like teen peer pressure, parental peer pressure capitalizes on the fear of not fitting in. Do you want to be the one parent who didn’t listen? The one parent who watched your student fail? The one parent who could have and should have done more, but didn’t?

There’s a difference between a trusted friend, one with a sincere interest in your student, offering perspective, advice, or encouragement and that parent who makes you feel bad about your family’s approach to the college admissions process.

Peer pressure makes teens do things they otherwise don’t want to do. Don’t let parental peer pressure do the same to you.

Instead of caving in, do what you’d tell your kids to do.

Don’t listen. Don’t engage. Don’t let them make you feel bad. Do what feels right for you (and your student), not what someone else tells you is best.

And if the pressure is unrelenting, it’s possible you’ll need to find new friends (or minimize your interactions together until after the admissions process is over).

I’ve watched hundreds of families go through the college admissions process. And I have never once heard any of them say at the conclusion, “What helped most was all the unsolicited information and advice we got from our friends.”

You know your student better than your friends do. And the reality of whatever you’re being pressured to do is that everybody isn’t doing it.

How to praise with purpose

Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation. Specifically, she studies why people succeed and how to foster success, especially in kids.

This article gives a nice summary of the findings from two of Dweck’s recent studies. The two that jumped out at me for parents:

  1. Praising kids merely for their innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.
  2. Praising kids instead for the strategies and processes they develop to solve problems—even when they don’t fully succeed—makes them more likely to try harder and ultimately achieve.

I don’t think Dweck is advocating that parents should use praise exclusively as a strategy to turn their kids into indomitable achievers. I can’t see how Mom or Dad just gushing unbridled praise occasionally can possibly put them on the bad parent list.

But the findings are a good reminder that a parent’s words carry more weight with their own kids. And even when praising, sometimes, we’ve got to choose those words carefully.

The particulars of today…and tomorrow

Yesterday, I stumbled across a LinkedIn profile of a Collegewise student I haven’t spoken with since he finished our program almost 15 years ago.

I remember him well. He wasn’t at the top of his class (or of the arbitrary high school social ladder), but he had good grades, participated in some activities, and most importantly, was the consummate happy, good kid. He was nice to his classmates, well-liked by his friends, and polite to his parents, teachers, and counselors. He was both interested and interesting, two characteristics that usually go together. And while both he and his family clearly believed his education and his future were important, they somehow managed to stay above the admissions frenzy that gripped so many families at his private high school. They knew this good kid—with his work ethic, character, and interests—was going to be just fine no matter where he ended up.

Fast forward 15 years later.

Today, he’s an associate creative director at one of the world’s largest advertising firms (I recognized nearly all of the major campaigns that he’s written). He’s also one of eight members of a sketch comedy group whose monthly shows, featuring their own original material, have sold out for three years running. And on December 31, he’s getting married. Life is good for this grown-up good kid.

While the particulars are unique to him, the story is not. Kids get into college. They grow up, find their way, and maybe even find that special someone and start a family of their own. This tale has a happy ending without a surprising twist.

But so many families can’t see how much they and their kids have to look forward to in the years to come. They’re too focused on that ACT score that still hasn’t cracked 30. They’re hoping that more tutoring can turn that B+ in pre-calculus into an A-. They’re agonizing over whether it’s more volunteer work, a leadership position, or a summer program that will give them the edge for admission to a dream college.

Not all of that focus is bad. We all have to balance dreaming about tomorrow with focusing on what we have to get done today.

But when that focus ruins what should be an exciting time for a family, when it causes undue stress and anxiety, when it leaves kids feeling like the only way they can be validated is by getting a “Yes” from a college that says “No” to most applicants, it’s time to worry less about the particulars of today and have faith in what will become the particulars of tomorrow.

This former Collegewise student’s alma mater? Boston College. If memory serves, it was not his first choice. But he was thrilled anyway. And his positive outlook meant that he probably would have felt the same way attending any college on his list, even one of his safety schools.

On asking for help

Wharton Business School professor and author Adam Grant offers up his take on How Not to Ask for a Recommendation Letter. It’s directed towards college students, and it’s too late for this year’s crop of high school seniors to implement the advice. But I’m sharing it anyway because I think all students (and many parents) can still draw some great lessons from it.

Here’s a snippet of what Grant said was one of the best recommendation requests he’s ever seen.

“I was hoping you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation because I have interacted with you over the past couple of years more than with any other professor here. I have made countless mistakes as a team leader, including micromanaging in our first weeks as a club, not giving proper feedback to my teammates about their performance, and not being able to defuse tension at board meetings. But I have also grown tremendously, especially with the help of your advice on…”

Part of being successful means asking for help when you need it. Those requests sometimes mean asking someone to do you a favor, and people don’t always feel compelled to say yes. So here are a few past posts that explain more about what this student did—and what you’ll need to do—if you want the people you’re asking for help to respond in kind.

Here’s one with Grant explaining why admitting your inadequacies—rather than simply selling your strengths—is a more effective way to get job offers, promotions, and board seats.

And another highlighting the most applicable of Grant’s “6 Ways to Get me to Email You Back.”

Here’s another, this one with my advice on how to deserve the help you need (along with some links to other past posts about how to ask for help effectively).

And a final one for parents with guidelines for emailing your student’s teachers.

Redefining success for kids

How we define success for our kids can actually end up harming them. Madeline Levine is a founder at Challenge Success and the author of Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes.”

She’s also an advocate of redefining success for kids and not making everything about grades, test scores, and getting into a “good” college. But what I particularly appreciate about her advice is that, as a parent herself, she understands why redefining success feels so risky for so many families.

This 15-minute podcast interview with Levine is worth a listen for parents, and there were plenty of snippets I wanted to share. But I’ll limit it to this one, which was her response to a query about why it is so difficult for parents to adjust their vision of success for their kids.

“As kids get older, we become increasingly fearful of letting them make choices. ‘What if they make the wrong choice? It’ll keep them out of this school. It’ll keep them off that team.’ Not understanding that the experience of recovering from a mistake or a failure or a challenge is exactly where most of us grow. The capacity to tolerate failure, to learn from it, cultivates resilience.”

Their relief, and yours

Seniors, if your family just can’t quite put a Thanksgiving moratorium on college application talk, high school counselor Patrick O’Connor offers up some of his typically sage advice in Applying to College? Here’s How to Survive Thanksgiving. Here’s his suggested method for handling questions like, “Do you think this afternoon might be a good time to work on your essays?”

“This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, ‘I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.’”

Not a spreadsheet person? No problem. The particular method you use isn’t important. What’s important is to be prepared to provide more than, “I’ve got this—stop asking me!” Make a list, a schedule, or some other tangible proof that you’re holding yourself accountable. Your parents’ relief will bring you some relief, too.

Savor this time

Parents with high school age kids probably have one or more Thanksgiving routines. You know which family members visit whom, who travels where, and who cooks what dishes. And most importantly, you know that wherever you are, your high school student will probably be right there at the table with you.

But as kids grow up, Thanksgiving (like just about everything else) gets more complicated.

Not every college kid comes home for Thanksgiving. Depending on where they go, travel can be expensive and just too difficult to execute for such a short stay.

Someday, those kids might get married and have families of their own. Life gets busier. More moving parts, more commitments, more extended family. Yes, that can make for a bigger and better celebration. But depending on where those former kids settle down, it might also mean that everyone can’t necessarily be together over turkey.

I don’t mention any of this to add sadness to your stuffing. I bring it up to remind families to be thankful for this time you have together. Don’t let college admissions anxiety rob you of that opportunity. Whether or not Cornell says yes might seem like the most important thing in the world right now. It might be difficult to wean yourself off the talk about applications and test scores and essay topics. But trust me, 2 or 12 or 20 years from now, those things won’t seem as important to focus on today as just relishing your family time is.

Savor your Thanksgiving meal, and savor this opportunity to be together.

Happy Thanksgiving.