Just look happy to be there

I’ve done close to a thousand presentations in my professional career, the majority of them in front of high school students and/or parents. And as anyone who’s spoken in front of a crowd can tell you, you notice which audience members seem genuinely happy to be there. Even if they never take a note or ask a question, I’m always appreciative when anyone gives the non-verbal cues that they’re glad to be in that room right now. If I were grading audience members at the end of each presentation, the seemingly happy ones would almost always get better grades.

It works the same way in a classroom.

When your teacher looks out at the class, what expression are you giving back? Do you look bored, like you’d prefer to be just about anywhere else? Or do you look happy to be there? Even if it’s not your favorite class or teacher, you’re there anyway. Being someplace else isn’t an option. If you make the decision to go in with a positive attitude, chances are you’ll find some reasons to justify that feeling.

Sure, a smiling face alone won’t earn you good grades unless you actually do the work. But appearing genuinely happy to be there is a good start. You’ll probably get more out of your classes. And each day, you’ll be giving your teachers a reason to think positively of you, too.

Punch worthy

From a lecture Warren Buffet gave at Norte Dame in 1991:

“You’d get very rich if you thought of yourself as having a card with only twenty punches in a lifetime, and every financial decision used up one punch. You’d resist the temptation to dabble. You’d make more good decisions and you’d make more big decisions.”

I love that saying not because of its financial implications (though it’s certainly smart there, too), but because you can apply it to many areas of your life.

You can think of punches as days in your favorite teacher’s class, practices with your team, meetings of your club or organization, shifts at your part-time job, nights out with your friends, etc.

Dabbling isn’t necessarily bad. I don’t think you should hesitate to take a short, fun glassblowing class at a community center because you feel pressured to save that hole punch spot for something bigger and more important.

But if you’re going to take the class, make it worth the hole punch. Sit in the front. Ask questions. Really extract as much from it as you can. Make the hole punch worth it.

And I really can’t think of a better way to get the most out of college.

You’ll have a limited number of days as a college student. Make every one of them worth the hole punch. Whether you’re sitting in a Nobel-Prize-winning professor’s class, studying for a final, participating in a club, working at an internship, or hanging out on a Tuesday night with your new friends in the dorm (those nights are some of the best in college), soak it in and make each day punch worthy.

College leftovers

I’m spending the holiday weekend with my three closest buddies from college—a doctor, an assistant dean of our alma mater’s schools of computer science, an owner of an employee placement company, and a founder of a college counseling company.

There are a lot of benefits to college that you can’t read about in guidebooks, things that aren’t factored into US News Rankings or other proposed measures of a college’s worth. And one of those things will be the people you meet while you’re there.

You’ll meet a lot of new friends while you’re in college, many of whom you’ll likely drift apart from once college ends. That’s a normal part of growing up.

But you’ll almost certainly have a few that stay in your life, people who stand at your wedding and play with your kids and congratulate you when you buy your first house one day. That’s a pretty great collegiate benefit. And you don’t have to go to a prestigious (or expensive) college to enjoy it.

Sure, you’ll need to do a lot more than just make friends to get the maximum value from your time and money while you’re there. But like the learning and the discoveries you make about yourself while you’re there, the friends that stay in your life are part of those benefits. The four years are important. But it’s what’s left over at the end of college that really makes college worth it.

Five activity tips to start the school year right

Now that the school year is officially underway for many students, here are five tips to help you enjoy your activities this year and turn them into a college admissions advantage:

1. Make an impact.
Passive participants do only what they have to do to stay involved. But students who make an impact want to make contributions that would be missed if they stopped participating. Yes, you can make an impact by being the best player on the team, the first chair violinist in the orchestra, or the president of the student body. But you can do just as much good as the team manager, the still-improving saxophone player who organizers the bus trips for the marching band, or the member of the Spanish club who learns how to make authentic food for your club meetings. Don’t just show up; put your energy into what you’re doing.

2. Prune your involvements.
Happy and successful students want to spend their time doing activities they really enjoy. If you’re involved in anything that isn’t making you happy, consider quitting that activity and reallocating that time to something else. This doesn’t mean you should quit something just because you aren’t excelling at it. Lots of benchwarmers, understudies for the school play, and role players without leadership positions enjoy what they’re doing and get into plenty of colleges.

3. Don’t worry about what “looks good to colleges.”
Successful college applicants didn’t get that way by picking activities because they thought it would help their resumes. They chose activities that really enjoyed and had faith that colleges would appreciate the energy and commitment they put into them. It’s not what you do with your time outside of class. It’s the passion you have for it that makes colleges recognize that you could bring the same trait with you to college no matter how you choose to spend your time once you get there.

4. Don’t feel pressure to follow the crowd.
Just because everyone else at your high school seems to be involved in a particular club or organization doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, too. If a popular club looks interesting to you, go for it and get involved. But otherwise, have the confidence to chart your own path and choose what’s right for you.

5. Remember that passion doesn’t have to be for life.
Many seventeen-year-old students aren’t 100% sure what they want to do during or after college. So if you love writing poetry but don’t want to be an English major, keep writing! If you love playing on the water polo team but would rather spend your college years dry and doing something else, no problem. Your part-time job, volunteer work, club participation, or any other interest don’t have to be part of your future plans to be valuable to you and to colleges. Just think about what you like doing today and put your all into it. If you continue during or after college, great. But if not, the lessons you learn while making an impact will be valuable no matter how you decide to spend your time in the future.

The value of character

If you’ve read the book or seen the movie Lone Survivor, you know the story of Michael Murphy, the Navy SEAL who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. During a vicious gunfight with the Taliban, Murphy, who had already been shot several times, left his position of cover and moved to an open area so he could get reception to call for reinforcements, all but guaranteeing that he would be killed in order to save his men. His last words before signing off were, “Thank you, sir.”

A different movie about his life, Murph: The Protector, shares two tales from Murphy’s high school days.

In one instance, his high school principal called Murphy’s mother to tell him that while Michael was not in trouble, he was obligated to report to her that Michael had been in a fight at school that day. Several boys were bullying a boy with learning difficulties and trying to stuff him in a locker. Murphy, the future Navy SEAL hero, jumped in and put a stop to it.

He was also a starting safety on his high school varsity football team, but Murphy lost his spot to a freshman phenom. It was clear to him that the spot was being given to the better player who could help the team. So instead of complaining or riding the bench in silence, Murphy made it his job to mentor the younger player who’d taken his spot. In spite of his disappointment, he found a way to contribute to his team.

Both of these actions highlight the importance of character–something that often gets lost in the college admissions discussion that can get too focused on GPAs, test scores, and offers of admission from prestigious colleges.

Character is available to anyone who wants it. It’s a trait that will never go out of style. People with good character always seem to have plenty of opportunities, jobs, and people who care about them.

You don’t need straight A’s or perfect test scores to reach out to people who need help, or to put the interests of your team, club, or organization ahead of your own. And you don’t have to be a Navy SEAL. You just have to be willing to do the right thing rather than the easy thing.

Interesting aside—when he decided to become a SEAL after college, Murphy had an admission to an Ivy League law school in hand. His undergraduate college? Penn State.

Greatest hits: Back-to-school edition

In honor of students heading back to school, here are a few past posts to get you off to a good start:

How to achieve your goals in school this year

Become more impressive by doing less

Five things you can start doing tomorrow that will get you better grades

Back-to-school resolution suggestions for students

And two books to help you be successful this year:

1. Cal Newport wrote How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less for college students, but almost everything—how to take notes, how to study, how to take a test—is just as applicable for high school students. If you need to improve your study skills, this is the best book I’ve found on the subject.

2. If you like the advice on this blog, my book If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted walks you through every element of the college admissions process, from classes and testing to applications, essays, and interviews.

Which extracurricular activities are best?

The notion that there is a magic list of activities that inherently “look good” to colleges, and that participating in them will somehow work as a guaranteed admissions advantage, is a hoax. I’ve seen all kinds of students–from class presidents to bug collectors, newspaper editors to bongo-players, quarterbacks to fast food workers–have very successful college admissions outcomes.

As usual, the University of Virginia’s blog comes through with spot-on advice, including the most recent entry about choosing activities. If you’re wondering what colleges actually look for, give their latest post a read.

Should you reveal serious struggles in an essay?

Your college essays should help an admissions committee get to know you better. Colleges understand that they’re creating a freshman class full of real human beings, not just a collection of grades and test scores. So the best essays give these readers a window into some part of your life that’s important to you, something that doesn’t just repeat information they already learned in your application.

I’ve often heard from students who are considering revealing very difficult challenges they struggle (or have struggled) with, such as:

1. Depression
2. An eating disorder
3. Substance abuse
4. A suicide attempt
5. A personality disorder

There is no iron-clad rule of thumb as to whether or not these are good or bad choices for your college essay. But if you’re considering discussing such a topic, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

1. To admit you, admissions officers need to feel comfortable that you won’t be a risk to yourself or others.

At the most basic level, admissions officers want you and other students to be safe. If you raise questions about your mental or physical well-being, it’s natural for the person reading your essay to worry whether or not you’ll be OK when you leave home and have to make a big adjustment to college life.

2. Most college admissions officers are not trained medical or psychological experts.

You understand the complexities of your particular challenge far better than the average college admissions officer will. When you write that you’re bi-polar, or that you’re a recovering drug addict, or that you once struggled with an eating disorder, you’re opening up about a serious issue with limited space to discuss it, and you’re doing so to someone who may know very little about it. An essay that raises more questions than it does answers can create doubt and concern in your reader’s mind.

One occasion where I’m comfortable endorsing a student’s choice to share topics like this is when he or she has not only overcome the challenge, but is now actively working or volunteering to help others do the same. For example, I once worked with a student who’d recovered from an eating disorder and was running regular group meetings for other teens who were in the middle of their own struggles. Another student who’d recovered from substance abuse was now volunteering doing intake evaluations at a drug rehab center.

Again, these aren’t hard-and-fast rules. But the idea in those instances was that rather than potentially being viewed as a liability, these students were showing how their post-recovery work to help others with their own struggles could actually be an asset to their college communities.

No matter what stories you decide to share (or not share), remember the golden essay rule—these are your essays, not anybody else’s. You need to feel confident and proud of what you say and how you say it. If you feel that a difficult personal challenge is at the core of who you are, and you want to discuss it, you should do so. And if you’re unsure, run the topic by your high school counselor or a qualified private counselor before you submit it.

The science of attention

Casey in our East Bay, California office shared these snippets from a podcast with Adele Diamond, a neuroscientist at University of British Columbia, who studies child psychology and specifically the importance of the development of the prefrontal cortex:

But our research and others’ is showing that if the children have more time to play, they do better on these academic outcome measures than if they spend more time in direct academic instruction. And things like the arts or sports or any of these other things, they develop your cognitive skills dependent on prefrontal cortex. Like sustaining attention, like being able to hold information in mind. They speak to your social aspect because you’re part of a group.”

“It turns out [...] being able to exercise discipline, and keep at it, and practice, and study, and finish your assignments, and start your assignments when you need to — is much more important than IQ. Which is kind of hopeful because then you don’t have to worry, you know, ‘Gee, I wasn’t born with this high IQ so I can’t achieve.’ And the evidence is that that’s not so.

Only human

In one week, I received 900 inquiries from people who’d seen our employment ads and wanted to work at Collegewise. We’re such a lucky company to have that many people interested in working here, and I never take that for granted.

But more than half of those people clearly didn’t bother to read our postings or the directions within them. Instead, they emailed me basic questions like, “Where are you hiring?” and “What are the job responsibilities?” A few didn’t even get that specific and just asked, “Can you tell me more about Collegewise?”

With that many applications to get through, it’s unlikely those people will be chosen for an interview.

We spend a lot of time working on our website and our employment postings. We’ve thought a lot about the kind of information people might like to know about us so we can make it as easy as possible for them to find it. That’s why anyone who spends five minutes on our website can read our story. They can learn all about available positions and the job responsibilities of a Collegewise counselor. They can even link to a past blog post with tips for job seekers hoping to work here.

Is it dismissive to write those people off? Could I be passing on someone who might be a great counselor? Maybe. But I’m only human, and those questions come off as lazy, to me. They want me to take time to give them information when they haven’t invested any time of their own to find it. If they make that mistake themselves, I can’t trust them to prevent a Collegewise student from doing the same thing with an admissions office.

If you’re applying to college this fall, remember to do your part. Don’t call or email the admissions office to ask basic questions that are answered on the website (and parents, don’t ever do that for your kids). Don’t make them do the work for you. No, they may not automatically hold that against you when you apply. But they’re only human. And when you show that you’re wiling to take their time without investing yours (or to even make that call yourself), it’s difficult to ignore.

Instead, take the time to learn about the colleges you’re applying to and the programs that interest you. Review the information the college has taken the time to share on its website. And if you still have questions, then call or email. Admissions officers are nice people and they’ll be happy to help you, especially if you let them know that you looked for the information on their website but were unable to find it.

You should also take some comfort in knowing that the human leeway goes both ways here. Admissions officers don’t expect you to be perfect. They know that even the best kids occasionally make mistakes. As long as you’re polite, respectful of their time, and thankful for the help they provide you (good traits to have outside of college admissions, too), they’ll almost certainly say something to the effect of, “No problem—you’re only human.”