Make others notice

Students, if you only do your best work when you like the teacher, or your parents push you, or the boss is watching, that’s giving other people an awful lot of power over your life. And worst of all, you’re letting them control when you’re at your best.

If you want to stand out, earn more credit, get more positive attention, and improve your chances of getting into college, don’t wait for others to get you to work. Do work that will make others take notice.

The original helicopter parent?

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis just might have been the original helicopter parent. As originally reported in Page Six and shared in this New York Post article, it turns out Jackie “…filled out son John F. Kennedy Jr.’s application to Brown University back in 1978 — and throughout his four years at the Ivy League school, she worked diligently to ensure he didn’t flunk any of his classes, going so far as to correspond with his professors.”

The article goes on to share examples of more current, less famous, and I believe just as inappropriate helicopter behavior of some of today’s parents of college kids, some of whom go as far as to impersonate their children when calling or emailing school officials.

I hope parents who read that article avoid the same kind of behavior rather than find comfort in a connection to the iconic first lady.

How to get quiet teens to open up

While Claire Lew’s “11 ways to get feedback from your most introverted employee” is a great read for managers, I think virtually every one of those tips could work well for counselors and parents looking to help more reserved teens open up about school, life, college, etc. For parents, though, I’d recommend ignoring #8: “Bring a notebook” (no need to formalize the talk quite so much when it’s in the family).

Short answer essay help is here

College essays don’t just come in the form of the longer 600-word personal statements. Many colleges’ applications also serve up prompts requiring as few as 150-300 words on topics like why you’ve chosen to apply to that college, what you learned from a failure or mistake, and which activity has had the most meaning for you. When handled well, these shorter essays give applicants multiple opportunities to share more about themselves in ways that the rest of the application—and the longer essay—have not yet revealed.

If you’re working through or about to start writing your short answer essays, we’ve still got some spaces in tonight’s webinar:

The Art of the Short Answer 
How to write effective responses to those short answer prompts on applications
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (PDT)

Our Collegewise presenters, Nandita and Tom, read thousands of applications at Stanford and Colorado College respectively. They’re both excellent teachers, and they’ll not only help you understand the intent behind these short answer questions, but also help you find and tell your best stories. If you can’t attend live, we’ll be sharing the recording for two weeks following the webinar, but only with those who register. I hope you can join us.

Monday morning Q&A: Community service and college admissions

Nicole asks:

“How much weight do schools place on service trips? It seems as if they are reaching an over-saturation point, that I might call ‘excessive volunteering.’ Do colleges see through most of these ‘checkbox’ items on a resume or application?”

Good question, Nicole. This is a tricky subject because a strong argument can be made that volunteering anywhere for any amount of time is a good thing regardless of any purported college admissions impact. But your specific question is about the “weight” schools place on these commitments, so let me focus on that part here.

First, you’re right. Many students are approaching community service hours like checking a box–as if it were a prerequisite for admission. Some high schools even require a minimum number of completed service hours to graduate. But most colleges don’t expect that every successful applicant will have worked at a blood drive or served soup at a homeless shelter. There’s no penalty imposed on students who choose to do other things. What colleges look for is evidence that a student has made both a commitment and an impact doing things he or she cares about. That might be volunteering at a non-profit, teaching illiterate adults to read, or training guide dogs for the blind. But it could also be working at Burger King, playing softball, taking photos for the yearbook or playing the bassoon. Impact can take many forms (more on that here).

So, a student who’s spending the bare minimum time and effort just to rack up some community service hours to list on their application could reasonably consider rededicating that time someplace else without any negative admissions ramifications. If your heart’s not in it, you’re not really giving—and the people you’re serving aren’t really getting—your best self in the name of the cause.

The one potential exception to this rule is if you’re applying to a school whose mission includes serving others. For example, some religiously affiliated colleges expect that an applicant will have dedicated time to her church and embraced the tenet of service. A student who’s chosen to spend the majority of her time in church-related activities that have included serving the less fortunate will likely have an admissions advantage over the student who spent that same time running track and taking art classes. The former student is more likely to accept an offer of admission and to thrive on campus because she’s already demonstrated that she’s aligned with the mission. When in doubt, read your college’s website carefully, as these schools won’t hide what they stand for.

And no matter where you apply, never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are “enough.” That’s like fingernails on the chalkboard to that audience.

Thanks for your question, Nicole. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Teacher/student responsibilities

Students, who’s responsible for making sure that you learn the material in each of your classes?

I’d argue it’s you, not your teacher.

It’s your teacher’s job to make it clear what’s expected from students. It’s your teacher’s job to provide the necessary instruction and resources like materials, opportunities to answer questions, and even extra help if necessary. It’s your teacher’s job to fairly evaluate your performance in the class based on the metrics that have been made clear.

But learning takes two willing parties. And just like parents, bosses, and other figures of authority can’t physically force you to do anything well or at all, your teacher can’t will you to be an engaged student who genuinely wants to learn.

“I didn’t do well in that class because I didn’t like the teacher” is a student who’s abdicating their responsibility.

“My teacher wasn’t my favorite, but I still found a way to learn in her class” is a student who’s embracing their responsibly.

Counselors: before you deliver your next workshop

One way high school counselors can share admissions information and advice with their community of students, parents, and faculty is to hold a workshop or other group gathering. To make these meetings as valuable as possible for you and for your attendees, consider asking three questions ahead of time.

1. What change are you hoping to make?
There’s no need to bring everyone together just to share information—send an email, write a blog, post the information on your website, etc. and you’ve just saved a lot of time for everyone. When you put people in the room, you’re trying to get them to change in some way. You want them to start filling out applications, to follow the new letter of rec protocol, to write better essays or get over their fear of the FAFSA or think more about college fit than prestige. Identifying ahead of time the change you want to make helps you structure the talk to actually make that change happen. And you need to know where you want your audience to go before you start telling them how and why they should move.

2. How will you know if it worked?
You’re spending time creating this talk, and your audience is spending time to come listen. How will you know if it worked? What signs will you look for as evidence that your talk got the job done? Will you hear from the English teachers that the first drafts of the college essays had improved? Will you have fewer students arriving at your offices three days before holiday break to ask for college admissions advice? Will you increase the number of first-generation students in your senior class who attend college next year? Whether the change you were seeking to make was big or small, identify ahead of time how you’ll decide whether or not your talk actually drove the change you wanted.

3. What will happen if the change does—or does not—take place?
Will there be a reward for attendees who successfully make the change? Will there be a punishment for those who do not? (Hint: potential rewards work better than potential punishments do.) You can’t force people to learn or to do something. They need to want to make the change, and that journey has more gravity when there are consequences attached. So, will students who follow your letter of rec guidelines be given priority? Will you be imposing a strict deadline by which you will no longer be available to answer application-related questions? Will students who’ve submitted all their applications enjoy a stress-free holiday break? Whatever the consequence of making or not making the change, make it clear to the attendees. You need them to do more than just sit through the presentation. You want them enrolled in this journey. And helping them see the benefits or disadvantages based on whether or not they follow your lead will make people more likely to act.

Make space for sanity

Ken Anselment is the dean of admission and financial aid at Lawrence University and the father of a high school senior. One of his favorite pieces of advice to share with families going through this process is to set aside one (and only one) time per week when you as a family will talk about college.

“Maybe it’s a couple hours every Sunday afternoon (our family pick; hence “Sundays with Ken”). Maybe it’s Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Whatever. Pick a day and time, and agree that you as a family will reserve serious college talk only for those times. All other times during the week that college might come up (and that’s pretty much the remaining 166 hours), park it and save it till your next meeting. The exception, of course, is if it is urgent. (And it’s usually not urgent).”

You can learn more about the benefits of this in-house policy, and Anselment’s successful implementation of it within his own house, in his piece “Making Space for Sanity in the College Search.”

Create your application support group

College applications have a way of generating a competitive atmosphere amongst peers, whether or not those friends are actually applying to the same schools. And most of that competition stems from comparisons: who scored what on the SAT, who’s already completed their Common Application, who has the purported admissions advantage, etc.

Seniors, instead of comparing and competing, what if you selected 2-3 willing friends and formed your own application support group? Choose your cohorts based on their willingness to commit to these five ideals.

1. Come from a place of “We’re in this together.”
The foundation of this support group should be mutual feelings that while the college application process may be stressful, you’re in this together and intend to pull each other through it. When you reframe a stressful experience as a group challenge rather than an individual burden, you’re less likely to feel discouraged and more likely to feel emboldened by the common goal. Commit to each other not to compare, compete, or otherwise turn this into a status competition. You’re in this together now.

2. Leave negativity at the door.
Yes, talking about your stress can help you manage it. But there’s a fine line between vocalizing what’s eating you and serving up heaping portions of negativity. You’re creating this support group specifically to combat, not to invite, negativity. So commit to each other that your discussions about all-things-college won’t be just group gripe sessions. Instead, use your conversations to find the positives. Which brings me to…

3. Infuse positivity.
According to Harvard researcher Shawn Achor, a positive and engaged brain is one of the greatest competitive advantages, resulting in a 31% increase in productivity, 23% fewer stress-related symptoms, and a host of other effects that help humans perform better. Your support group can cultivate this advantage by infusing positivity. Give each other recognition and encouragement. Look for ways to celebrate wins like a completed essay, a submitted application, or the very last time one of your members will ever take the SAT. And don’t forget the fact that barring a serious error in your college list creation (one that can be avoided by getting your counselor to OK your list), all of you will be in college somewhere next year. Remind each other that while application season may be stressful, overall, life is good.

4. Keep each other accountable for work completed.
The most effective application support groups don’t just offer support and encouragement; they also keep each other accountable for getting the actual work done. Consider this recommendation by high school counselor extraordinaire Patrick O’Connor and carve out a two-hour block every Saturday or Sunday (or both) for the next few weeks to do nothing but work on college applications. If your group is focused enough to do that work together without interrupting each other, great—gather together at one of your homes or in the library. But if you just can’t resist turning those blocks into social time, then do the work independently, but check in about your progress collaboratively. Supportive and productive peer pressure can be a good thing if it helps you achieve a common goal.

5. Plan your application completion celebration.
One of the best ways to get through a stressful period is to have a bright spot at the end of it to look forward to. And in this case, the entire group can use that bright spot as a means to get your work done earlier than procrastination might have allowed. Plan an activity during the first weekend of your upcoming December holiday break to celebrate the completion of all your college applications, and make an agreement together that you’ll actually be true to the reason you’re gathering. No excuses, no “I just have a few more changes to make this week and I’ll be done.” I know you can’t possibly imagine just how wonderful it will feel to gather together, collectively say, “We’re done!” and mean it. But trust me on this one. The combination of pride, sense of accomplishment, and relief will feel almost as good as the inevitable acceptances to follow will.

Consistency in something vs. everything

Another solid entry from the University of Virginia’s blog, this one addressing the question of whether or not UVA looks for consistency in activities. It’s so refreshing to read that (1) they don’t value certain activities over others, (2) they don’t expect you to fill out the entire Common App activity chart, and (3) they don’t consider consistency a prerequisite.

Most colleges I can think of, with the possible exception of those offering specialized programs like performing arts, would agree with those activity guidelines.

Many students are reluctant to leave an activity behind and/or to pick up something new because they’ve heard that colleges want long-term, substantial commitments. But it’s important to understand the spirit of the law here. Like UVA, most colleges understand that teenagers change their minds. They don’t necessarily expect that an activity you first tried at age 14 will necessarily be one that you’ll stick with throughout high school.

But where consistency can become an issue is if you’re someone with a habit of picking up new activities and then putting them back down. Colleges do appreciate a student with the capacity to commit to something that matters to them long enough to make an impact. That capacity matters more than the type or quantity of the activities that benefit from it.

Consistency in something is a plus. Consistency in everything is not.