What’s all the frenzy really for?

Jay Mathews is the semi-retired education reporter for the Washington Post who still shows up occasionally to pen a new story. And I always perk up when he drops his trademark sanity and perspective about the college admissions process captured so well in his book Harvard Schmarvard.

Here’s his latest piece. And while the title—Dear Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman: You wasted your money—reads a little like clickbait, the message contained within (the gist of which I’ve pasted below) is one worth reading for any student or parent who’s experiencing anxiety around the desire to attend a highly selective college.

“I confess that when I opened the acceptance letter [from Harvard], I thought great wealth and power would soon be mine. So why have I spent my life being ordered around by people who attended less-selective schools?…I’m not complaining. I love my work. But I have always wondered why smart people like you [Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman ]assume getting into an Ivy League school, or its equivalent, guarantees success.”

Passion will reveal itself

For students who are fretting (or parents who are fretting on their students’ behalves) over trying to identify their passion so they can select a career and choose an appropriate college major, consider giving Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love a read. Newport makes a convincing argument that (1) “follow your passion” is actually bad advice, and (2) passion comes after you put in the effort to become excellent at something valuable, not before.

Yes, you should listen to your interests and strengths as you know them today (a student who’s always struggled in math is less likely to find joy and career success as an accountant). But you don’t yet know what your passion will be when you’re 22 or 32 or 42. Don’t rush it.

Put in the time, effort, and interest as you find your way through subjects, opportunities, and work that make sense at the time. The passion will eventually reveal itself.

A counselor practicing what he preaches

How would you expect one of the most widely respected, admired, trusted college counselors in the country to guide his own daughter through her college application process? Patrick O’Connor shares his approach in his recent post, “The College Counselor Who Left His Own Children Alone,” the gist of which is best summed up in this line:

“Since I’d been in college counseling forever, it would be fair to say I had more than ample resources at hand to be some combination of a Hovercraft Dad and Helicopter Counselor by picking up the phone and making sure things went smoothly. Not only was that not necessary; it would have been counterproductive.”

What you don’t yet know

Students, four years ago, who were you and what did you know? It doesn’t matter whether you’re 18 or 14 today. Chances are that when you scan back four years, you’ll do some serious head-shaking. You likely felt at the time like you’d grown wise beyond your years. But the benefit of four years of hindsight points out that much of that confidence came from simply not yet knowing what you didn’t yet know.

Now, imagine yourself in the future walking across the stage at your college graduation.

Compared to today, how much will you know then? How much will you have learned, seen, and experienced? How many people will you have met, how much fun will you have enjoyed, and how many opportunities will you have had to learn from your successes and mistakes?

What will you have learned about yourself and the world around you? How much will you know then that you don’t yet know today?

No matter how knowledgeable and confident you may be now, how do you imagine the you on that stage in the future will view the you of today?

And most importantly, do you honestly believe that only a prestigious college can usher in those wonderful insights and changes?

You don’t yet know what you don’t know today. But there are plenty of colleges beyond the famous ones to help you make the wonderful leap from not knowing to knowing.

Five reasons you might not be reaching your goals

If you’re having trouble achieving goals that matter to you, it might not have anything to do with your work ethic. The trouble might be with the goals themselves.

Here are five potential goal pitfalls and how to avoid them.

1. You haven’t identified your goals.
Sometimes hard workers get so engrossed in the effort that they’re not sure where they want that work to take them. Not everything in your life needs to have a goal attached to it. But you have to know where you’re headed to get where you want to go. Start by actually writing your goals down and describing them clearly.

2. Your goals are too nebulous.
Goals need to be specific if you’re going to set a plan and hold yourself accountable for reaching them. “Get better grades” is a worthwhile outcome, but it’s not specific enough to work towards. “Improve my grades in science and math,” “Improve my batting average to higher than .300,” or “Secure a solo for at least one recital this semester” are specific goals you can work towards.

3. Your goals are too grandiose.
Ambition is a valuable trait, and there’s nothing wrong with aiming high. But there’s a point at which you bypass a lofty goal and move into the realm of fantasy. And that’s just another way to let yourself off the hook. Here’s a good litmus test to make sure you aren’t making this mistake: If you can’t describe a detailed plan to reach your goal, you’re probably edging into grandiosity, which brings me to…

4. You don’t have a plan to reach them.
The most important ingredient in any goal-worthy pursuit is a detailed plan to achieve it. What exactly do you need to do? What are the obstacles? How will you know if you’re making progress? Crafting a detailed plan makes you accountable. You won’t be able to pretend that you’re moving forward unless you’re actually doing what you planned to do each day, week, or month. Start with the end goal in mind (see #1), but don’t forget your detailed directions to get there.

5. You don’t have enough help.
Nobody succeeds alone. Even the most determined of us needs others to help us achieve our dreams. Don’t forge ahead on a solo quest. Maybe you need guidance from your counselor, instruction from a tutor, or support from family and friends. Decide ahead of time who you’ll need in your corner to help you. As long as you’ve earned the help before you ask for it, people who care about you will want to do what they can to help you succeed.

Good. Enough.

Projects, papers, college applications—how do you know when it’s time to stop polishing and time to start shipping it out the door?

Something worth doing is worth doing well. But sometimes the quest for perfection just becomes a stall, another day or week to hide instead of a day or week to improve whatever it is you’re working on.

“Good enough” has a pejorative connotation, like you stopped short of making something as good as it possibly could have been. Instead, try for a new outcome using the same two words.

“Good. Enough.”

You can make something great, and avoid unnecessary stalling, when you give up “perfect” (which it never is) and replace it with “Good. Enough.”

Snowplowing parents

This recent New York Times piece, “How Parents are Robbing their Children of Adulthood,” introduces the term “snowplow parents,” those who relentlessly clear away any potential obstacles to their children’s paths to success in the hopes of preventing any failure, frustration, or missed opportunities.

And it includes this punchy quote from the inimitable Julie “Dean Julie” Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success:

“Snowplow parents have it backward…The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Responding vs. correcting

Counselors, how do you respond when a student or parent makes a statement as if it’s a fact?

That college is a lot easier to get into if you apply in the liberal arts.

Without a great SAT score, the best colleges won’t even look at you.

That school gives preference to ______ (alumni/athletes/minorities, etc.).

They’re not asking you a question. They’re not seeking your opinion. But you also have a professional responsibility. To let a factually inaccurate statement go unchecked, especially one that could affect the student’s college planning, is a tacit endorsement of the statement.

Here’s a non-confrontational way to consider responding:

“Oh, really? That hasn’t been my experience.”

Tone is everything here. Say it as if you’re simply curious, not combative. Use the same voice you’d use if responding, “Really? That’s interesting.”

Many students and parents will then choose to engage further, especially if the topic is one that affects decisions they’re making. And then you’re in the role of responding to their inquiry, not correcting their misinformation.

Competing collaboratively

Another great share from Wharton’s Adam Grant. In his podcast episode this week, “Become friends with your rivals,” Grant explores how even in those competitions that are zero sum, like Olympic marathon races, where there can only be one winner, rivals actually perform better when they help each other. My favorite clip:

“Some competitions are zero sum. But our feelings about competing don’t have to be. Supportive rivalries click into place when you’re working towards something larger than your own success. Find a rival you admire. Tell them why you respect them. Explore what you can accomplish together. And then bring on the friendly competition. And bring it on as hard as you can.”

If you’re a high school student with someone in your circle you identify as a rival–a fellow student who shares the top spot in the class with you, the actress with whom you always compete for lead roles, or a competitive runner on another school’s cross country team–what would happen if you found a way to help each other be better? Not at the expense of your own progress and success, but in support of it?

Imagine the student at the top of the class going to her rival and suggesting they pair up to help each other prepare for their most difficult exams, while simultaneously tutoring their fellow students who were struggling in those courses. Neither would refrain from trying to best the other on exam day. But they’d make each other—and their classmates—even better. And there’s not a single college that wouldn’t take notice of their commitment to competing collaboratively.

“I don’t know”

In her latest newsletter, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author Angela Duckworth reminds us of the value of intellectual humility.

“Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

Do engage with people with genuine intellectual humility. When you’re asked a question you haven’t considered before, consider it a gift. And, perhaps, like the professor I was admiring the other day, follow ‘I don’t know’ with ‘Thank you. Great question. I’ll need to work on that.’”

And here’s a past post of mine on the value of intellectual humility in the college admissions process.