A few reminders if bad news arrives

I hope that seniors and their families who read this blog are receiving plenty of good admissions news these days. But if bad news arrives, here are a few past posts that might help you bounce back just a little faster.

How to handle college rejections  

Treat rejections like break-ups

Should you appeal a college rejection?

And here’s another reminder: Some students, but more often parents, will react badly enough to the news that they call the admissions office to yell at somebody. Please don’t do that. The person who fields your call will almost certainly be a receptionist who had nothing to do with your admissions decision (most people who call to yell direct it at whoever answers the phone). But more importantly, yelling at someone isn’t going to change the outcome. It’s not going to make you feel better. You’ll almost certainly regret it later. And most importantly for parents, it sets a terrible example for your kids.

I know that it hurts when a school you (or your student) really wanted to attend says no. It can feel bitterly personal, callous, and unfair. But it’s also an opportunity–an opportunity to seize another college option, to model the kind of productive and resilient behavior that successful people exhibit when things don’t go their way, and most importantly, to become one of those families who doesn’t allow an admissions decision from one college to validate their student’s worth or potential. You can do that for yourself, whatever answer arrives.

Intentionally incomplete

When you’re working on a project that can take days or even weeks—writing a research paper, studying for final exams, building a website, etc.—you might experience the onset of burnout overnight. You end your day, even one where you made a lot of project progress, but the next day, any momentum you had is gone. Whatever you try, you just can’t get back in the zone or muster the gumption to get going again. And you resolve to try again tomorrow when you hope to feel more motivated.

In his new book about the science of perfect timing, Dan Pink shares this great tip: End the day in the middle of a task. Stop writing in the middle of a sentence. Stop studying right in the middle of an equation or a paragraph. Stop programming right in the middle of a line of code. Call it a day without a clean ending point.

This might sound absurd or even torturous to people who find a lot of mental relief in finishing at a logical endpoint for the day. But that’s exactly why stopping in the middle can make it easier to get started again the next day. Pink points to the Zeigarnik effect, which is our tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones. When you come back to that unfinished sentence or equation or line of code the next day, your mind remembers what you were doing and feeling at the time. The sense of momentum comes right back. And that can fuel your motivation day-to-day. Pink even points out that Ernest Hemingway, who published 15 books, loved this technique and often ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.

Turns out one of the best ways to get going the next day is to leave something intentionally incomplete today.

Should you invite anonymous feedback?

I had a great conversation with a Collegewise employee yesterday about the potential value of anonymous feedback at work. If we provided a forum to invite our employees to share feedback without requiring them to attach a name to their thoughts, would that give a voice to people who might otherwise be reluctant to share their opinions? There are a lot of legitimate reasons why there might be benefits to gain, but here are five reasons I came away believing that anonymous feedback is a bad idea for us, for most organizations, and even for high school students.

1. It sends a message that it’s not safe to speak up.

Sure, you can pitch anonymous feedback as the opportunity to speak up without fear of consequences. But it also reinforces the notion that this is a place that might take punitive measures with someone who dared to share an opinion. Once you instill that fear, it’s hard to remove it. And while there may be some places where fear brings out the best in some people, work is rarely if ever one of them.

2. It absolves the submitter of all responsibility.

When you sign your name to your opinions, you assume responsibility for what you say and how you say it. Is your feedback clear? Is it thoughtful? Does it come from a good place of wanting to help or otherwise make things better? Anonymous feedback makes that responsibility optional, but not required. And that can bring out the worst in people. Look no further than the anonymous comments on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. If you want someone to treat your feedback with respect and to take responsibility for acting on it in some way, show them respect—and assume your own responsibility—at the onset by including your name with your thoughts.

3. It chips away at trust.

When feedback comes in the form of criticism, no matter how constructive, the receiver can’t help think, “I wonder who said that?” Then people start making unfounded guesses about the source. They start looking at their colleagues with suspicion instead of trust. The gossip starts to spin about who might have said what about whom. That feels an awful lot like the parts of junior high that we all hated so much. And nobody wants their work environment to feel that way.

4. Anonymity makes the feedback difficult if not impossible to act on.

One of the most important things any organization can do is respond to feedback from its constituents. Sometimes that response is to do exactly what was suggested. Sometimes it’s to reach out to the submitter and learn more. Other times it’s to make the person feel heard, but explain why you can’t or have decided not to act at this time. We don’t always get that action right at Collegewise, but we’re always trying to get better at it. When the feedback is anonymous, it’s much harder to take any productive action at all. And no action eventually leads to no more useful feedback.

5. It robs the submitter of a great opportunity.

People who share thoughtful, respectful feedback are demonstrating engagement. They’re showing that they care enough about the person, the cause, or the organization to raise their hand, share an opinion, and stand by those thoughts. They can then participate in the ensuing discussion or even lead the charge to make change. Over time, that person can establish a reputation as a high impact player, someone who makes things happen for the organization. Even a high school student can do this if they share useful feedback with their organizations, their teachers, or their school, then follow that feedback with a pledge to be a part of whatever happens on the other side. I can’t imagine a college that wouldn’t appreciate a student who engaged in this way, always coming from a place of wanting to make things better not just for themselves, but for everyone involved.

Lights off, phone off, memory on

From the BBC’s “An effortless way to improve your memory”:

“When trying to memorise (sic) new material, it’s easy to assume that the more work you put in, the better you will perform. Yet taking the occasional down time – to do literally nothing – may be exactly what you need. Just dim the lights, sit back, and enjoy 10-15 minutes of quiet contemplation, and you’ll find that your memory of the facts you have just learnt is far better than if you had attempted to use that moment more productively.”

And to be clear, that does not mean 10-15 minutes of quiet contemplation while engaging with your phone. Turn that off if you really want your memory to turn on.

Look ahead to look back

Last week, my wife and I had to put our dog, Lola, down, the first pet I’d ever owned. And like fellow and past dog owners can attest to their dogs doing, she’d become a part of our family.

This won’t be a post about my dog, or death. In fact, in college admissions circles, “pet death” is one of those essays that’s so common it’s become an ineffective cliché.

But one part of dog ownership that I got right was that every night before I’d head upstairs to bed, I’d give Lola a quick scratch behind the ears and say, “Goodnight, sweet puppy.” Maybe it was maudlin to think this way, but no matter how tired I was or how strong the call of the comfy bed was proving to be, I’d remind myself that Lola wasn’t going to live in our house forever. I didn’t want to look back on her time here wishing I’d focused a little more on just how great it was to have her around. I made the decision once that I was going to end each night on a good Lola note. And I’m glad I did.

Parents of high school kids have so many wonderful things to look forward to as their kids move on from the teenage years. Watching them grow into adults, forge their lives, start their own families–that’s the good stuff. The relationship you’ll enjoy, the joy you’ll find in watching all of it happen, unlike Lola ending her run in our house last week, even when they’re no longer in the house to say goodnight to–all the best parts are still to come for you.

But there are still a limited number of days that your kid will be a full-time resident in your house. No matter how far in the future it may be, their departure date will eventually arrive.

How do you want to say you spent that limited time until then?

My guess is that when you look back, you won’t wish you’d spent more time talking about SAT scores, or arguing about homework, or fixating on perceived weaknesses to be fixed before it’s time for college applications.

I always try to remind Collegewise families that they’re only going to get to do this (watch their kid apply to college) once. Don’t ruin it by injecting all kinds of unnecessary stress or attaching lifelong significance to temporary outcomes like grades, test scores, or an admissions decision from a dream college. Sure, treat their future education with the attention it deserves. But find a way to see it for the exciting time it is, and to appreciate the joy in watching your student find their place for the next four years.

Your perspective changes when you remember that what’s happening right now, both good and stressful, won’t be happening forever. Look ahead to how you want to look back. And make the decision to make the most of this time.

We miss you, Lo. Goodnight, sweet puppy.

Self-driven kids

A new book, The Self-Driven Child, argues that influences like screen time, along with well-meaning parents and schools, are denying children and teens a sense of control over their own lives. And when kids don’t have the chance or the choice to do what they find meaningful, or to succeed or fail on their own, it leads to a host of problems like anxiety, depression, and even a failure to launch (which explains why more adults in their 20s and 30s are living at home).

Here’s Ned Johnson, the book’s co-author, as interviewed in Scientific American. I’m sharing this passage because it’s the perfect example of a simple but powerful decision parents can make that improves everything from your teen’s mental health, to your family relationship, to—yes—even college admissions outcomes.

“They [teens] are facing stressors each day, from school demands to social dynamics. You want home to be the place they can go to seek a respite from it all, where they feel safe and loved unconditionally, where they can fully relax, so that they can gather the energy to go back out. But if home is a stressful environment—if parents are an anxious or controlling presence—kids will seek that respite somewhere—or somehow—else. And most of the time, it’s a place you don’t want them to go. Or, if nowhere can be that safe base, they are really in trouble, as being chronically stressed is about the worst thing imaginable for brains, especially developing ones. That’s why we tell parents that one of the most important things they can say to their kids is, ‘I love you too much to fight with you about your homework,’ and why we want them to move in the direction of being a non-anxious presence for their kids.”

Stop brainstorming, start brainwriting

From Inc.’s This Renowned Wharton Professor’s Best Leadership Advice: For the Love of God, Stop Brainstormingfeaturing renowned professor Adam Grant:

With 50 years of research available, leaders should be familiar with the perils of groupthink. When people go along to get along, originality suffers, potential threats are brushed aside, and disastrous decisions result. More effective, Grant says, is a process called “brainwriting,” in which everyone generates ideas on his or her own. Only once everything is on the table does the group evaluate it. “The wisdom of crowds mostly comes when you put people in separate rooms and get their judgment independently,” he says.

Something to consider the next time your club, organization, or department considers calling a meeting to brainstorm.

It’s all about the kids

After the school shooting in Florida this week, I was feeling something I hadn’t felt since 9/11—that writing, teaching, or even thinking about college admissions was somewhere between trivial and offensive in light of recent events.

On the evening of that fateful day in 2001, I couldn’t imagine giving my scheduled talk on college admissions at a local high school later that night. Who even cared about early decision and college essays and the art of application presentation? The world seemed to be falling down around us.

But because parents never get to stop being parents, it was my mom who reminded me that those kids were the future of our country, that it would be up to them to restore the safety and confidence in our country, and that there was nothing wrong with talking to them about college admissions on “a day like today,” as she put it. That’s typical of my mother. She spent 30 years as an English teacher at a public high school, every day of which she approached with the mantra that it was all about the kids. Whatever it took to reach, teach, reassure, and inspire, that’s what you do. For the kids.

And as usual, she was right. Those students showed up that night, and so did I.

There’s no pithy college admissions lesson to be extracted from a tragedy where 17 high school kids go to school one morning and never come home. But there just might be a reminder for all of us to keep things like SAT scores and class rankings and admissions decisions from prestigious colleges in perspective.

The world needs kids who will grow up to be kind, thoughtful human beings more than it does kids who proved they’ll relentlessly prep their way to higher test scores. It needs more kids who can lead responsibly, who will reach out to the person in crisis, and who seek out the thorniest, most challenging problems to solve a lot more than it does a student who plodded their way through community service hours just to add them to their resume.

Transcripts and class rankings and even college applications don’t encapsulate young people. When the adults in their lives reduce kids’ value to numbers, accolades, or which colleges say yes, we’re making their journey to adulthood all about their outcomes, not about the kids themselves. What really matters today and tomorrow is that they’re happy, healthy, good people.

Their future is also our future. And the stakes are too high not to make this time all about them.

What’s the point?

It’s Girl Scout cookie season, and this recent story about actress Jennifer Garner’s Instagram post (she’s pictured holding a sign selling the sweets) left me wondering, what’s the point of this exercise?

Is it to raise money for the Scouts?

Is it to give parents and kids an activity they can do together?

Is it to teach kids how to be confident, how to talk to adults, and even how to sell?

And does it really work if the argument is “all of the above”?

Adults can probably raise a lot more money for the Scouts than the girls can selling cookies (especially if that adult is a celebrity).

Parents peddling cookies to coworkers at the office are raising money, but unless the kids are at work with them, it’s not exactly a family activity.

And the best way to help kids be more confident representing themselves is to actually let them represent themselves, not to have Mom or Dad do it all for them.

Now, some might say that there doesn’t need to be a larger mission to this, that selling cookies is a nice tradition that teaches girls some lessons and provides an opportunity for even the busiest parents to involve themselves with something their daughters care about.

But someday soon, these Scouts will be in high school and preparing for the independence of college. And if those parents are slinging chocolate bars to raise money for the lacrosse team or the cheerleaders or the marching band because the kids are “just too busy,” it will be even more important to ask, “What’s the point?”

When the question isn’t the question

Counselors, many of the questions students and parents pose to you aren’t questions at all. They’re actually introductions. The real questions still need to be uncovered.

Should I prep for the ACT this summer?

I heard that applying early decision increases your chances of getting in. Is that true?

I can’t take AP Bio and the art class at the same time. I should take AP Bio, right?

Wouldn’t it be better to choose UCLA over Colorado College if I want to be a doctor?

Our son needs personal attention. Can you recommend some smaller schools?

They seem straightforward. In fact, they could technically be answered with a simple yes or no. But experienced counselors know that giving a simple answer won’t satisfy the seeker. Instead, veterans will come back with a question of their own.

        Is the ACT the best test for you to take?

How do you feel about  committing to one school?

Do you enjoy your science classes?

A doctor? Good for you. Are you certain that’s your future career path?

Sure, I can suggest some schools. Can you tell me more about what kind of personal attention is most helpful?

Follow a question with a question, and you’ll get one step closer to finding the best answer to give.