A public (speaking) service announcement

If you caught the postgame coverage of the World Series this week, you might have seen Chevrolet executive Rikk Wilde botching his post-game presentation in which he gave Chevy pickup keys to series MVP, Madison Bumgarner. Wilde, who was visibly nervous and sweating, lost his breath, something that happens when you’re nervous, particularly when speaking. After unsuccessfully searching for guidance from his notes, Wilde fumbled out, “It combines class-winning and leading, you know, technology and stuff, with Wi-Fi powered by OnStar.” And all of this happened on national television.

I’ve given hundreds of speeches, presentations and interviews in my career. There’s plenty I’m not good at, but when talking, I’m almost never nervous. But I can still remember the few times that I’ve lost my breath during one of them. Sometimes you don’t even see it coming. But the nervousness hits you like, well, a Chevy truck and the next thing you know, you’re out of breath. The nervousness just escalates from there, and it can be nearly impossible to recover.

Unless you stop and take a deep breath.

In those moments when you just can’t catch your breath and your nerves are getting the best of you, the best way to calm yourself and get back to neutral is to take a deep breath. If you’re not on live national television, you can even sip a glass of water to buy a little time. But even Rikk could have just ad-libbed—“That game was so exciting, I’m still trying to catch my breath!” One long breath and he would have won back both his breath and his audience.

You can even prepare an emergency time-buying phrase ahead of time. People tend to be on your side when you’re nervous and you own it:

“I guess Steinbeck really has an effect on me, especially when talking about him in front of my English class.”

“I can see every key executive in the company is in this room. Let me catch my breath so I can get this presentation right.”

“I promise I won’t be as nervous in my college classes as I seem to be during this college interview.”

The deep breath and subsequent exhale only take about 3-4 seconds. It might feel awkwardly long when you do it. But even the shortest of audience attention spans can hang in there for 3-4 seconds. And the pause itself will never be as awkward as a breathless presentation will be.

Where to direct your admissions mental energy

If I could eliminate two behaviors that breed the most college admissions anxiety with virtually no positive return, here they are:

1. Becoming attached to outcomes that you don’t control, like getting into Northwestern or Rice or UCLA.
2. Closely tied to #1: experiencing failure before it actually occurs. That sounds like this:

What if my SAT score doesn’t break 1900?
What if I don’t get an A on my physics test?
Should our student appeal if he’s not accepted to his dream school?

When you feel admissions anxiety creeping in, ask yourself:

Am I fixating on an outcome that I don’t ultimately control?
Am I worrying about a future event that hasn’t actually happened yet?

If the answer to one or both is yes, step back and redirect your mental energy to real things that you can influence today.

On holistic evaluations

The University of Virginia’s blog comes through again, this time with one of the better explanations of “holistic evaluations” that I’ve seen–using the analogy of a puzzle. As the writer describes, “In a holistic review, you look at all pieces of the applicant’s puzzle together before you make your decision… As we read, the puzzle comes together. All of the pieces are important, but they vary in size.”

My favorite part is the explanation of test scores using the same puzzle analogy:

“The testing piece is a four-hour piece of your puzzle…It’s obviously important because it contributes to the overall pictures, but it is one component among many and there are other parts of the puzzle that are larger and take considerably longer to evaluate. If you are looking at test scores this evening, I hope you’ll put things in perspective. Yes, testing is important. However, it doesn’t overshadow or knock other parts of your file out of the way.”

College Confidential: Do’s and Don’ts

Many of our counselors at Collegewise have a complex relationship with College Confidential, the online gathering place for college-bound students and even more often, their parents. At its best, it’s a place families can find helpful information and some camaraderie with other families going through the process. And we’ve certainly used it to get up-to-date admissions information—when admissions decisions are released from a particular college, someone on College Confidential is bound to post the update.

But it can also be an online breeding ground for namebranditis, anxiety, and bad advice. If you’re a College Confidential regular, check out The Prospect’s Do’s and Don’ts of College Confidential. And remember that much like medicine, law, and financial planning, it’s best to take admissions advice from people who really know what they’re talking about, like high school counselors, college admissions officers, and qualified private counselors.

Impact doesn’t have to make headlines

The press often covers teens doing some remarkable things, like winning medals at the Olympics, playing violin at Carnegie Hall, or inventing technology to lower pollution. But for students who aren’t securing patents or waiting in line for the Nobel Prize, it’s important to remember that impact takes many forms. Just because yours may not reach the front page of the newspaper doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be proud or that colleges won’t be impressed.

Maybe you helped refurbish a local shelter for battered women. Maybe you ran a fundraiser to replace the softball team’s uniforms. Maybe you organized a graffiti cleanup task force, ran a 10k to raise money for breast cancer, or helped a student raise his grade from a D to a B+ in algebra.

Yes, if you want to go to MIT, Stanford, Cornell, or one of the other colleges that rejects most of their applicants, your impact will need to be substantial. In fact, making headlines still doesn’t guarantee an admission to one of those schools.

But remember that the vast majority of colleges will happily admit a student who cares enough to dedicate yourself to something you care about. They know students with that passion and commitment will bring those traits with them to college, whether or not you made headlines while you were in high school.

On standing out

Over at the Teenpro podcast, Seth Godin shares some good advice for teens on how to stand out. The entire 12-minute episode is worth a listen, but the college-related subject matter starts at about the 4-minute mark.

Essay advice from an expert

Last week, the folks at CollegeWeek Live invited our own Arun to present his version of our Collegewise essay seminar online. If you’re struggling to write your college essays and could use a little advice, you won’t find many people with as much good advice to share as our own Arun. He read approximately 20,000 college essays in a nine-year run in admissions at University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA. Since coming to the other side of the desk, he’s helped hundreds of our Collegewise students find and tell their best stories.

You can view the 1-hour presentation here.

Match colleges to you

Many students approach the college process like performers trying to please judges. They spend their time wondering what the colleges are looking for, then frantically try to do those things. But those applicants often forget that they, not the colleges, are the ones with all the options.

So here’s a suggested exercise for juniors who are just starting your college search:

I’m going to assume that if you’re a student reading this blog, (1) you want to go to college, and (2) you’re at least a little excited about the idea. Before you think about specific schools, make a comprehensive list of everything you want to do when you’re in college. Nothing is out of bounds, so don’t edit yourself. If you want to study biology with a Nobel Prize-winning professor, write it down. If you want to minor in theater, write it down. If you want to go to football games, join a fraternity, play late night video games with new friends or just finally experience life on your own, add it to the list. If you need a little inspiration, here’s a past post.

Whether you’ve got 10 or 100 things on the list, it’s a start. We call this a college wish list. Now, as you learn about schools, you know what to look for—the items on your wish list.

A savvy college shopper will change your wish list over time. You’ll add new things, take away others, and rearrange your priorities about which items on the list are non-negotiable and which you can take or leave. But the point of the exercise is that you’ll be consistently training yourself not to ask questions like, “What is Dartmouth looking for?” Instead, you’ll be asking, “What am I looking for, and which schools can offer those things to me?”

If you do this for 6 or 8 or 12 months, you may put some items on your list that can only be found at a particular school, such as a specific professor, program, or opportunity that simply can’t be found anywhere else. Those will make for great inclusions in your “Why this college?” essays. Unlike many other applicants, you won’t just be visiting the website and grabbing a few statistics to include in the essay. Instead, you’ll have some good college soul-searching to back those desirable offerings up.

But more importantly, you’ll probably be consistently reminded of just how many schools can actually give you what you’re looking for, whether or not they’re prestigious.

So instead of making a college list and then trying to match yourself to those schools, start with a wish list and match the colleges to you.

Let kids do the knocking

Last week, my nine-year-old neighbor knocked on my door and gave me a pitch about sponsoring him in his school music program’s upcoming jog-a-thon. He was a little nervous and probably not as polished as he likely became ten neighbors later. But he stood there on my front porch and gave it a good shot, explaining that the funds would go to pay the music teacher’s salary and telling me why he likes playing the cello.

The best part? His mother stood twenty feet behind him, not saying a word. She just smiled and offered silent sales support. I would have written him the check even if he didn’t live right next door.

That nine-year-old kid was doing something too many high school kids skip (often because their parents take over the project). He’s looking an adult in the eye, shaking a hand, selling an idea, etc. It’s hard to imagine those skills not coming in handy in the future. And he’s learning them because his mother is letting her kid do the knocking himself.

From selling sponsorships, to seeking help from teachers, to securing part-time jobs or volunteer opportunities, when parents jump in and take over the process for their kids, the students might get what they (or you) wanted, but they miss out on the learning.  It’s the learning from the knocking that will help them be successful in the long run.  Here are a few past posts on this topic, including five fundraising tips and a nice reminder (with a link to a great Seth Godin post).


Should you send it?

Breanne in our Irvine, California office shared a nifty graphic from a Tufts admissions blog post entitled, “Should I send it?”  It demonstrates visually how infrequently the act of sending unsolicited, extra materials with your application is actually a good thing.  I’ll stop short of saying it holds true for every college (my rule is always to follow each college’s explicit directions—if they don’t ask for it, don’t send it), but I love how this graphic pushes students to make every effort to share the necessary information within the application itself before you rely on additional materials.