For parents: five guaranteed stress-inducers

Some common college admissions behaviors are guaranteed to induce stress for even the best parents. Here are my top five. Consider these my recommended “don’ts” during this process.

1. Lose all perspective.
Treat the college admissions process like Navy SEAL training where only the strongest, highest achieving, most unrelentingly resilient can hope to survive and advance. Inject lots of fear and drama into the process. After all, everyone who’s happy and successful today got straight A’s, perfect test scores, and admissions offers from prestigious colleges back in high school. Remember the relative prestige of your kids’ college admissions results is a perfect reflection of your success or failure as a parent—all your love and hard work can be erased by just one college rejection from a dream school. Never forget that everything is on the line, all the time.

2. Ignore strengths—fix those (perceived) weaknesses.
Sure, you have a nice kid who likes her job at the daycare and is nice to her younger brother. But five A’s and one B on a report card? Better get a tutor and raise that B! Vacation, shmacation—put her in full-time SAT prep this summer until you’re in the range for Dartmouth. Great work in school musical, but no leadership positions?  Force her to run for office in something, whether or not she actually wants to. Remember, adults don’t have weaknesses, only strengths. Teach your kids early on that the only way to get by is to excel at everything. You’ll successfully ratchet up the pressure in your house until the whole family needs sleep-aids.

3. Turn this into a status competition with other parents.
When you talk to other parents, whenever possible, compare your students’ college admissions stats like grades, test scores, and number of volunteer hours completed. Students need to know that this process isn’t just about them—it’s about representing your entire family at dinner parties. There’s no need to focus on all the reasons you love your kids or to bond over the shared trials of parenting your teen. Ignore all other potentially pleasant topics of conversation until your kids are in (a prestigious) college.

4. Take over the process for your student.
He’s seventeen, so he’ll probably screw it up anyway. Best to continuously do things for your student that he can do himself. Initiate all discussions with teachers and counselors—he doesn’t need to know how to interact with adults. Choose the colleges. Complete the applications. Heck, just write the essays, or at the very least, suggest your own topics as seen through the parenting lens. Sure, you have plenty to do already and your student needs to learn these skills before college. But refer back to rule #1—this is an all-or-nothing time. No reasonable sacrifice of boundaries or sanity is too great in the pursuit of any Ivy League admission.

5. Resolve not to enjoy this time.
Yes, you love your kid and you enjoyed her childhood birthday parties as much as the next parent. But the fun is over now, for her and for you. This is college admissions, after all, and if something can go wrong, it will. All of your college hopes and dreams are riding on this, so it’s best to hold off on any positivity or fun until she’s gainfully employed and taking care of you one day.

Parents, you have a hard job, one that comes without an operations manual. I write this blog to help you and your kids enjoy a more successful, less stressful college admissions process, as I believe this should be an exciting time for every family. If you’ve made (or are making) any of these mistakes above, that’s OK. It comes from a good place of wanting the best for your kids (which is every parent’s job). But I hope you’ll see through my sarcasm of don’ts above that much of the anxiety is self-induced, and that there’s plenty you can do to make this a more enjoyable time for your family.

For private counselors: step into students’ shoes

The best independent counselors know that the only way to be an expert is to commit to learning everything they can about admissions and counseling. But that learning isn’t limited to books, blogs, and conferences. In fact, one of the best ways to become a better counselor is to regularly put yourself in your students’ shoes.

Are there colleges within an hour of your home? Schedule tours and visit all of them. You won’t just learn more about the schools. You’ll learn what college tours are like for the tourists. You’ll figure out how to get the most out of them. And you’ll pass that information along to your students.

Want to learn about colleges? Pick 25 of the most popular schools for your student population and research them, just like your students will need to, using websites and college guidebooks. You’ll learn a lot about those 25 colleges, but you’ll also learn how to navigate each of the websites and what kind of information is most helpful. You’ll start deciphering marketing-speak from real information. Yes, your students still need to go through this process themselves. But doing it yourself first will make you a savvy college shopper, and you can then teach that skill to your students.

Want to get really good at guiding kids through applications? Complete your own application for each of the schools your students are applying to. You’ll learn how to decipher confusing directions, how to adjust when no more than five activities will fit into the space provided, and how to navigate through the most confusing sections. Don’t complete the applications for your kids (and obviously, don’t submit them). But the only way to give expert advice is to actually do the work yourself—for yourself—until you actually understand it well enough to teach it.

When you can successfully navigate your own way through the college admissions process, you’ll feel that much more confident in your ability to help your students do the same.

Here’s a past post on how to get started as a private counselor, another about the pros and cons of online college counseling certification programs, and a final one encouraging you to just get out there and help kids.

For parents: On demanding certainty

Parents often ask our Collegewise counselors,

“How can my student pick colleges? He doesn’t even know what he wants to do yet.”

It’s a fair question. And I understand why some parents are uncomfortable with our answer when we tell them this is normal, that many 17-year-olds we meet are unsure of their future career, that even those with some idea might not feel comfortable letting that distant profession drive their college search.

For most parents, the discomfort comes from a feeling of uncertainty.

Does this mean he’ll switch majors four times?
What if he still has no career prospects even after I’ve paid for four years of college?
How are we going to make sure college is worth it for him and for us?

Some parents try to remove that uncertainty by pushing career tests, career-based college searches, or pre-professional majors. But those attempts rarely bring you or your student the clarity that you’re looking for. In fact, prematurely forcing a future outcome just increases the risks that a student will stumble or disengage along the way.

But that doesn’t mean you have to endorse four years of meandering aimlessly through college.

I don’t think that any parent who pays for college is obligated to endorse four years of pure fun balanced with just enough work to barely get by. You can and should make your expectations clear while your student is in college, hopefully by encouraging productive actions like building a remarkable college career, challenging themselves by trying things that might not work, and using college opportunities to develop skills that could align with future careers.

No, it’s not the same as drawing a straight line to a future career. But you’ll be encouraging the behaviors that won’t just help your student reap the most benefit from college, but that also give the best chance for future success and happiness.

Make your own valuable lessons

Some of the most clichéd college essay topics involve “learning valuable lessons.”

Basketball taught me the value of committing to my goals.
Through community service, I learned the importance of helping people.
My leadership position taught me that I can work well with others.

It’s not that sports, community service, or leadership positions can’t be interesting topics—they can. But they become cliché because 1) Too many students say exactly the same thing, and 2) Most students don’t identify with those lessons until the time comes to write an essay. That’s why you’ve likely never heard a high school athlete actually say the words, “My sport taught me the value of committing to my goals.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable lessons to be learned during the high school years. Here are a few skills and experiences that are there for the learning for any high school student.  You don’t need straight A’s, exceptional talent, or an elected position to do them.  And any of them will help you not only be more successful, but also get into college.

1. Initiate. Get things going for yourself and others.
2. Lead. You don’t need a leadership position to lead. Real leading is just having the vision and guts to stand up and say to a group, “Follow me.”
3. Have a point of view. Speak up. You might be wrong sometimes. That’s OK.
4. Be smart and open-minded enough to change your mind.
6. Solve interesting problems. Yes, calculus counts. But so does finding a venue for the winter formal when your class loses the one you’d planned on, raising money to resurrect the school newspaper, or finding a way to help the yearbook staff get along when the stress of deadlines leaves the group ready to implode.
7. Take responsibility (it’s called taking responsibility for a reason). Be willing to step up and say, “I’ll make sure it gets done.”
8. Fail. No, don’t blow off your final exams and call it an opportunity. I mean the constructive kind of failure that comes from trying things that might not work.
9. Be resilient. This is a corollary to #8. When something doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped, learn from it and just forge ahead.
10. Be curious. What interests you? What do you want to learn next? You don’t need to be a straight-A student to have an interesting answer to that question. From classes, to books, to YouTube, you’re in a world where you can learn just about anything that interests you.

Making the most of it

Making the most of an opportunity or experience is a lot different from getting the most from it. Successful people focus more on the making than they do on the getting.

Let’s say you have an opportunity to play for one of the best coaches in your sport. This experience won’t last forever. What are you going to do to make the most of it? What will you do to make this something that you look back on years later and realize how valuable the experience was?

What if you try out for the lead in the school musical and end up with a much smaller part instead? You have two choices—you can lament that you’re not front and center, or you can just figure out how to make the most of it. You can be the best, most positive, team-playing bit-player you can be. You can care more about the production than you do about your significance. You can find a way to make contributions that would be missed if you ever left.

No, you shouldn’t just plod through things that don’t seem to give anything back. From playing time, to stage time, to learning, and even just fun, you should feel like your time and energy is rewarding in some way.

But a student with no elected position in a club who steps up, takes initiative, organizes, and otherwise makes an impact can end up knowing a lot more about leadership than even the club’s president does.

The path to getting the most out of something starts with making the most out of it and giving the most to it.

Saying vs. living

A friend asked me recently how much time we spend talking about company culture at Collegewise. The answer is that we spend a lot less time talking about it than we do trying to live it.

Company culture isn’t something you can make. Culture makes itself based on what you actually do. It’s a bi-product of consistent behavior, not a mission statement or a banner on the wall. Imagine if someone you knew talked incessantly about how important it is to be a good person, but then frequently acted like a jerk and treated people badly.  Organizations work the same way. Bold words sound good but they lose oomph if you don’t actually live them.

A company that touts its commitment to customers, employees, or social values—but doesn’t actually live those ideals every day—is talking about one culture but actually living a different one.

College admissions officers see this frequently from applicants, too. Many students write their essays about how important community service was to them in high school. But that claim doesn’t hold a lot of weight if you only worked one blood drive and never volunteered anywhere again. It’s the difference between saying something is important and actually living the things that prove how important it is to you.

Whether you’re running a company, a counseling office, or a club, don’t spend too much time trying to define or describe what you want your culture to be. Sure, talk about what’s important to you, but more importantly, start living those ideals. Recognize and reward people who exemplify them. Be honest with yourselves about whether or not your actions are keeping you true to those words.

You won’t always get it right and neither do we. But you’ll get a lot closer when you focus on what you’re living instead of what you’re saying.

Do you still need a college to attend this fall?

For seniors who still need a college to attend this fall, approximately 220 colleges and universities still have openings, financial aid, and housing available to qualified freshmen for the Fall 2015 semester. To see the list, visit the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC’s) annual College Openings Update here.

The annual release of this list is always a good reminder that in spite of the myth that it’s impossible to get into college today, there are plenty of good schools ready to welcome students who want to be there. Spread the word.

For parents: it’s the little things

Last week, a member of a parent listserv shared an email her 16-year-old neighbor had sent out pitching her babysitting services for this summer. My wife and I are in the market for a babysitter, so the message caught our attention.

The email itself was clear and well-written. She’s got great qualifications for a teen—first aid and CPR certified, volunteer hours at Children’s Hospital, and experience (with references available). When we reached out to her, she responded within an hour and agreed to meet us at our home for an interview. Soon, she’ll be face-to-face with us in our living room hoping to make a first impression strong enough for us to say, “Yes, we trust you with our infant.”

There’s nothing groundbreaking about a teenager babysitting for some extra money, and she’s far from the only high school kid who’ll be listing it on her college applications. In fact, babysitting is one of the most common part-time jobs for teenagers.

But that doesn’t mean this isn’t potentially incredibly valuable for her.

This kid is learning how to pitch herself in writing and in person. She’s learning how to meet people and make a good impression. If she gets gigs, she’ll be learning how to manage customers’ expectations, and hopefully, how to be remarkable enough that she’ll earn referrals and repeat business. And she’ll be earning (and hopefully managing) her own money.

I can’t imagine that she could learn any of these things at Harvard Summer School or at a pay-to-play expensive summer program in a foreign land.

The pressure of college admissions forces too many families to focus on the bottom-line admissions value of just about everything. They want to make every decision against the measurement of, “Will this make her a more competitive applicant?”

But college admissions benefits are just one type of reward. Enjoyment, learning, growth, challenge, even fun—those are just as important as validation from a college admissions officer.

Parents, as you watch your kids prepare for college, remember that they’re also preparing for life as adults. There are lots of potential valuable experiences to be had along the way—don’t discount any just because there doesn’t seem to be an immediate college admissions connection.

Babysitting may not be a splashy line on the application. But sometimes great value can be extracted from the little things.

Keep playing hard

There are no guarantees in the college admissions process.

You can take the risk of challenging yourself in an AP class and you might not get an A. You can try out for the school play or varsity tennis or the jazz band and still not get picked. You can volunteer for over a hundred hours, rack up a list of honors and awards, and do everything you could possibly imagine your first choice college would want you to do—and you still might not get accepted.

College admissions is a lot like life in that way.

Many of the things we want—from opportunities to promotions to romantic prospects—aren’t guaranteed, even when we do everything that seemed to put us on the path to getting what we’d hoped for. The options are to (1) not play at all, or (2) go for it and trust that the effort and learning will somehow be worth it down the road even if we don’t get what we want.

Most successful people embrace the second option, and keep doing it over and over again.

This is an important, but difficult, lesson to learn in high school. Can you find the motivation to really pursue your dreams without the iron-clad guarantee that you’ll get what you want if you just work hard enough?

The best path for most kids is to accept that while you can’t control life’s outcomes, you can embrace your ability to influence them. Yes, you’ll stumble along the way. But the disappointments will be temporary, the successes will be more plentiful, and the eventual outcomes will almost certainly be enjoyable if you just keep playing hard.

Bigger than the work

If nine students get A’s in English class, how can one get a much stronger letter of recommendation than the others?

How can a private counselor with the same or even less experience than her competitors get twice as many referrals?

If 10 other applicants have similar grades, test scores, and qualifications, how does one get offered admission to a highly selective college?

The answer is often that the person did something bigger than the work itself.

One A student consistently raises her hand, asks good questions, looks engaged in class, and otherwise demonstrates on a daily basis just how much she enjoyed reading, writing, and talking about literature.

One private counselor injects positivity into every interaction, calls occasionally just to check in, and makes every family feel like they’re his only client.

One applicant thoughtfully used her application to share what was most important to her and to help the college get to know her better. She did so in a refreshingly confident, honest, and self-aware way without regard for polish or packaging.

There are lots of people who can do the work. But what impact or impression are you making during your interactions that’s actually bigger than the work itself?

That’s what makes a difference, makes people remember you, and makes you stand out.