Small adds up

I love this message in one of my favorite blogger’s recent post. Doing something small every day adds up to big changes over time. As he puts it, “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.” Whether you want to get a job one day as a game designer, make the hockey team, or just get better at the trumpet, a little bit of focused effort every day goes a long way.

Very few big accomplishments happen because of one monumental shift. Whatever you want to achieve—this year, during high school, or in life—you’re not going to get there just by meeting one key person, learning one secret, or getting accepted into one college.

Big accomplishments happen when small habits add up.

Accomplishments vs. attitude

The most successful, fulfilled people didn’t get where they are through accomplishments alone. They paired their great drive to achieve with an equally great attitude. It’s true in the workplace, and in college admissions.

You have two applicants with near-perfect GPAs. One is a grade grubber who only cares about getting the A, who whines for extra credit and will not hesitate to send his parents in to argue with the teacher on his behalf. The other is a curious learner who participates in class discussions and helps the student next to him with their trig troubles. Who would you admit?

You have two applicants who’ve done over 40 hours of community service. One did it so she could list the activity on her college applications, did the bare minimum asked of her, and amassed the time without exerting much effort. The other found an organization she cared about, constantly looked for new and better ways to contribute, and has a letter of recommendation from a supervisor raving about her work and lamenting how much the student will be missed when she leaves for college. Who would you admit?

Two applicants enjoyed successful varsity football careers. One cared more about his personal stats than he did about the team and constantly clashed with both coaches and teammates. The other won the Coach’s Award for pairing positivity with his pads, and actually congratulated the talented incoming transfer to whom he lost his starting spot. Who would you admit?

Two students each had minor disciplinary infractions in high school. One complains about the punishment, and blames his cohorts for initiating the prank and the school for making an example out of him. The other gracefully accepts the blame, apologizes, and regrets that he didn’t show better judgement. Who would you admit?

Two students have learning disabilities. One refuses to try, the other refuses to quit. Who would you admit?

One student constantly looks for people to blame for his shortcomings. The other constantly looks for people to thank for his successes. Who would you admit?

Attitude might not be everything in college admissions and in life. But while accomplishments aren’t always entirely in your control, attitude is something that you get to choose.

Catastrophe, or catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is the irrational act of believing that something is a lot worse than it actually is. There are two kinds, and both show up regularly for anxious students and parents going through the college admissions process.

The first creates a catastrophe out of a current non-catastrophic situation.

You get a C on one test and think, “I’m not smart, and I’ll never get into a good college.”

One college says no and you think, “All my hard work was for nothing, and I’ll be miserable at any other college that I go to.”

Your student doesn’t get into an Ivy League school and you think, “She’ll never get over this. I should have paid for even more SAT tutoring. I’ve failed her as a parent.”

The second kind of catastrophizing looks into the future and imagines the worst that could happen.

If the SAT tutoring doesn’t work, I won’t get the score I need and I’ll be rejected from all my favorite colleges.

If she doesn’t get into that AP class, she won’t be ranked in the top 5%, she won’t be competitive for good schools, and she’ll need to transfer to a different college as a junior.

If I don’t get into Stanford, I’ll never get into a good law school, and I’ll let my parents down.

The best way to battle both? Start by asking yourself, “Is this actually a catastrophe, or am I just catastrophizing?”

When you consider that question, try to be objective. Take the emotion out of it and focus rationally on the actual facts.

I acknowledge that some college admissions catastrophizing comes from the complexity and uncertainty of the process. The facts might be that you don’t really know exactly how one C or one test score or one decision will or will not affect your admissions outcomes. In those cases, a quick conversation with your high school counselor will help.

But no calm, rational, non-catastrophizing person truly believes that long-term life damage will be done by one grade, test score, or admissions decision in high school. Short-term impact and even disappointment? In some cases, maybe. But if you’re constantly anxious about the ride to college and wish you could be enjoying it just a little more, remember that the better you can get at differentiating between catastrophes and catastrophizing, the more you’ll be able to focus on the right things.

Parents: how to build better parent/school relations

Parents, here’s a simple exercise that will help you engage productively and appropriately with your student’s high school, forge healthy relationships with faculty, and even give you a nice mood lift.

1. Identify five positive things you’ve witnessed, experienced, or appreciated in the last three months at your student’s school.

Maybe the chemistry teacher spent a lot of extra time with your son helping him improve his grade. Maybe the school gave the girls’ cross country team a lot of well-deserved recognition on campus when they won the league title. Maybe you’re always impressed when you attend the jazz band concerts, or the counselor was the sounding board your student couldn’t find in someone else, or the steps the school is taking to curtail drinking during formal dances makes you feel more secure sending your kids out on those nights.

Just five positive things, big or small, that resonated with you.

2. Thank the person or persons responsible.

Send an email. Write a note. Or say thank you in person. The delivery method doesn’t matter nearly as much as the message does.

You might also have a list of concerns, negative experiences, or constructive criticisms. But that’s not what this exercise is about.

Teachers, administrators, parent leaders—they all appreciate the occasional thank you and pat on the back, just like the rest of us. And in many schools, those expressions don’t arrive nearly as often as the recipients deserve.

So find five reasons to express thanks. And if you can make it a regular habit, imagine how much more receptive those parties will be in the future if you do have a concern you’d like addressed.

Want to attend college outside the US?

Updated 4/18/17: I wrote in my original post that this webinar was free. That was my mistake–we’re charging $10. I promise this wasn’t my attempt at a blogging bait and switch (though my lack of attention to blogging detail is almost as frustrating). Thanks for being patient with me.  

We’re increasingly hearing from families with students who are considering attending college outside of the US. From reduced tuition, to cultural immersion, to fulfilling a sense of adventure, there are many reasons why a student might look to spend four years beyond US borders. If you’d like to learn more–not only about the opportunities, but also the process of applying and getting accepted to international colleges–I hope you’ll join us for this upcoming webinar.

The Inside Scoop on International Admissions
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
5:00 PM – 6:00 PM PDT

All the details, and the link to register, are here.

Real people

Some high school students are so driven to get accepted to selective colleges that they actually morph into full-time applicants. They’re not actually applying to college 24/7. But they talk about their life in terms of GPAs, test scores, activities, accolades, etc. The college applicant displaces the real person.

You’re not a college applicant; you’re a real person who happens to be planning on applying to college. As involved as that process might be, you should still have plenty of areas in your life that have nothing to do with impressing admissions officers.

For example, do you have answers to these questions?

  • What do you do for fun?
  • What’s the best experience you’ve had with a friend in the last six months?
  • When’s the last time you laughed really hard?
  • What relaxes you?
  • Which of your activities means the most to you, the activity you would miss the most if it were taken away from you?
  • What’s the last thing you learned just because you wanted to learn it, not because you had to learn it?
  • If you could create your perfect Sunday, what would it look like?

If you don’t have answers, maybe it’s time to find some.

And if this all seems trivial because you just can’t turn off the applicant mindset, you might be interested to know that many colleges ask these kinds of questions on their applications and during interviews.

They’re not just admitting applicants—they’re admitting real people.

Not-so-harmless embarrassment

I worked with a student years ago who told me that when her father drove her to middle school every day, he’d roll down the windows and purposely blare his “old-time music” as he approached the school’s curbside. Then he’d yell, “Go get ‘em honey—another day to excel!” as she exited the car. She still rolled her eyes about it at age 17, but there was also a touch of love for Dear Old Dad as she retold the story.

I’ll admit that I usually find it endearing when a parent does something that exasperates their teen to the point of venting, “You’re embarrassing me!” They’re usually harmless acts with no lasting damage done, even to the most fragile of teen psyches.

But last week, an admissions officer from a selective college posted a description to a private social media group of some recent parent behavior during the school’s tours, none of which seemed endearing.

One parent demanded to sit face-to-face with the admissions representative responsible for their territory. The current admissions officer who was slated to speak with interested families? Not an acceptable option, apparently.

Another berated the tour guide, who was unable to immediately fulfill the parent’s request to speak with a mechanical engineering professor.

And yet another showed up outside the scheduled group tour times, was unhappy that they would not immediately do a tour just for her family, and then not only inserted herself into a private tour organized for a specific high school, but also dominated the Q and A portion at the end.

What’s most troubling is that it wasn’t just one parent, and the incidents weren’t isolated. These kinds of behaviors are showing up regularly from parents of potential incoming freshmen.

That post included an acknowledgement that not all parents are like this. But it concluded with a reminder of just how important it is for students to speak for themselves.

Parents, there’s nothing wrong with you being an engaged participant in your student’s college search. It’s your child, after all, and you deserve to be included and heard, especially if you’ll be paying the bill.

But if your behavior—on a tour, at a college event, on the phone with the admissions office, etc.—demonstrates that you’re demanding and difficult, that you expect concierge-like service, and most troublingly, that you do not allow your student to ask their own questions and make their own collegiate discoveries, you’re embarrassing your student, potentially in a not-so-harmless way.

Decision time

Seniors have until May 1 to make up their minds about which of their offers of admission to accept. If any soon-to-be college freshmen (and their parents) are wondering…

Do I really have until May 1 to make up my mind? Some of these acceptance letters make it sound like I won’t get housing if I wait that long.


Can I put deposits down at more than one school so I can take more time to decide?

…then, please see this past post, which answers both questions.

A toolkit money can’t buy

Stanford Radio just aired this interview with former dean of freshmen and author Julie Lythcott-Haims on the dangers of overparenting and how to avoid that behavior. But she also takes the time to acknowledge that the overparenting phenomenon is present primarily in upper middle class families with parents who have disposable time and money and can invest resources to direct and manage their kids’ lives. A working class family holding down multiple jobs doesn’t have the same amount of time and money to invest in what she calls “cultivation of childhood.”

So what did she notice in both groups of kids when they arrived at Stanford? This portion starts about 28 minutes in:

“…as dean, I saw first-gen kids, kids from working class or poor backgrounds, come to this campus with such a sense of self. When they had a problem, they would say, ‘How am I going to handle it?’ They would come to me for advice. But they spoke with a strong letter II’m going to try this and I’m going to try that. I’ll come back and see you and follow up. Whereas their more affluent counterparts were more likely to text their parent and expect their parent to jump in and handle the problem, whatever it was. So they [under-resourced kids] basically came to campus…with an extra tray in their toolkit.”

If you’re a parent who isn’t able to spend time and money to shadow, cultivate, and orchestrate every moment of your kids’ lives, you can take some pride and comfort in the fact that you’re likely helping them learn some of the important skills they’ll need to be successful as young adults.

And parents with time and money to invest should be proud and appreciative of the life you’re creating for your family. But remember that if you can step back and embrace the opportunities for your kids to find their own way, to make and learn from their mistakes, and to manage their own challenges, you’ll be helping them add a tray to their toolkit, one that money can’t buy.