Enjoyment makes perfect?

Here’s an interesting study exploring something many of us probably suspected already— while it’s a nice concept that we can be great at anything if we just diligently work at it enough, in reality, practice doesn’t always make perfect.

I found it particularly interesting that 88% of elite-level performance is explained by factors other than practice.

Others [factors for success] include how open you are to collaborating and learning from others, and how much you enjoy the activity. That last one — intrinsic motivation — has a huge empirical base of support in workplaces, schools, and elsewhere. We’ve long known that the pleasure one takes from an activity is a powerful predictor of success.”

It’s a great reminder for high school  students  to find and lean into things you enjoy. Give especially great performances in your favorite classes. Take your favorite extracurricular activity or hobby to a reasonable extreme. Spend less time fixing perceived weaknesses and more time exploring and embracing things that make you happy.

Practice still has its place (as the article concedes). But you’ll get a lot more out of it if you enjoy what you’re doing in the first place.

Experiencing failure in advance

Seth Godin’s post today about experiencing failure in advance is actually how many families approach the college admissions process.

“What if my test scores don’t improve?”
“Will USC say yes if I do more community service hours?”
“If I get a ‘B’ in Spanish, will that hurt my chances at an Ivy League school?”

Anticipating every possible negative outcome in advance makes it impossible to enjoy the college admissions process together as a family. The alternative? Make the decision to enjoy it.


Maximize and manage

Nearly all successful people have one skill that high school gives you a great training ground to develop—maximizing opportunities and managing around the rest.

You may not get to take every class you want to take. You might have some teachers who are better than others. The availability of your high school counselor, the number of AP classes offered, the quality of the drama and music programs—while they are the strengths of some schools, they’re the weaknesses of others. Successful students don’t use shortcomings as an excuse to complain or blame other people. Instead, they maximize the opportunities in front of them and manage around the rest.

Your future college isn’t going to be perfect. Neither is your job, your house or even your marriage. Life doesn’t serve up perfect, challenge-free experiences. But when you maximize the opportunities and manage around the rest, you make each experience as close to perfect for you as it can be.

Use high school as a time to develop this skill.  Get good at it.  Then do it over and over again. You’ll be more successful and you’ll enjoy a lot more close-to-perfect experiences.

On demonstrating interest

For some colleges, an applicant’s demonstrated interest in the school can influence an admissions decision. But as their most recent blog entry points out: (1) the University of Virginia isn’t one of them, and (2) trying too hard to look interested isn’t a good admissions strategy, especially if you start to annoy admissions officers.

Here’s a past post on how to effectively show interest in a college without making the process even more stressful or expensive.

Just be authentic

We try to follow our own advice here at Collegewise. So it’s not surprising that whether we’re presenting ourselves to an audience, to a potential customer, or even to cyberspace on our website, we do what we tell our students to do in their college applications and essays—just be authentic.

Some people disagree with us when we say that college admissions should be enjoyable, that the prestigious colleges don’t have the market cornered on turning out happy and successful students. That’s OK. When we’re honest about who we are and what we believe, the people who disagree with us can find someone else who matches their view of the college admissions world. And the people who believe what we believe know they’ve found the right place to call home.

When you present yourself to colleges in your applications and essays, be authentic. Sound like you. Help them understand who you are and why you’ve chosen to spend your time the way you have in high school. Admissions officers want to get to know the authentic you, not some contrived version of yourself that you hope will impress them.

Your authentic self won’t please all colleges, and that’s OK. One of those schools that says yes will be the right place for you to call home.

Make matches moving forward

Matchmaking—finding the fit between a student and a college—is one of the best ways to ensure a less stressful, more successful college process. When you find colleges where you could be happy and successful, that fit your budget (or where you’re likely to receive need- or merit-based aid), and where your chances of admission are strong, you set yourself up to have many great college options from which to choose. Matchmaking puts you in charge of your college process.

But matchmaking doesn’t work in reverse.

“What is Harvard looking for?”
“Would Northwestern want me to go to a summer program or get a part-time job?”
“Will my chances of getting into Chicago be better if I declare a major in math?”

Questions like those come from students attempting to matchmake in reverse. They want to change themselves to fit the colleges they like instead of finding schools they like that already fit.

I’m not suggesting that students should rest on their laurels. When you work hard to improve your grades, when you raise your test scores, when you make an impact in activities you enjoy—you’re exerting efforts that could add potential colleges to your list and improve your chances of admission at many schools.

But you shouldn’t fundamentally change your interests, your activities, or your future plans just to fit what you think one college wants. Reverse matchmaking isn’t effective or healthy. It gives too much control to colleges and too little confidence to applicants who are left feeling that they don’t measure up just being who they are.

Instead of matchmaking in reverse, make matches moving forward. Challenge yourself. Work hard. Commit to activities that matter to you. Then find colleges that fit who are predisposed to like you just the way you are.

Pick a slice

After I do one of our college essay seminars for a crowd, I’ll often meet students afterwards who are torn between potential stories for an essay. Their indecision usually sounds something like this:

“One story would show my (insert strength or personality trait here), but the other shows my (insert a different strength or personality trait here).”

My answer usually reminds them they can’t possibly share everything about themselves in one college application. For each essay, the best approach is almost always to pick one slice of your life and use the essay to really help the reader understand it.

Human beings are complex. None of us can be thoroughly explained in one college application any more than we could help someone understand everything about who we are in a brief conversation.

So release yourself of that obligation. You can’t cover everything. Instead, pick a slice. And if your story makes your best friend say, “This is so you,” you probably picked a good slice.

Try a no-multi-tasking experiment

I’ve written several posts (here’s one, and another) on the value of eliminating distractions and doing focused work. And one of the most crucial steps towards distraction-free focus is to stop multi-tasking. For more on that topic, here’s a great guest post on the Harvard Business Review. What I like best is that rather than promising to eliminate multi-tasking altogether, the author simply tried an experiment for one week. Once he saw the benefits, it was much easier to stick to it.

For financial aid research

One of the best sources for information about particular colleges’ financial aid offerings is The College Navigator, which I profiled in a past post.  If you’re the type of college researcher who wants to dig into specifics like the average amount of aid for each school, how that aid is distributed (grants, loans, work study), and how aid packages tend to change in subsequent years of college, I’ve yet to find a better resource than The College Navigator.

Don’t hide behind words

In his recent internal announcement of the company’s plans to layoff 18,000 workers, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella began his email:

Last week in my email to you I synthesized our strategic direction as a productivity and platform company.”

It’s possible that sentence is meaningful to someone in the tech industry. But all signs point to business-speak.

Business-speak pretends to say something without saying anything. It lets people hide behind words. And I doubt that anyone has ever been excited, reassured or otherwise moved by business-speak.

Whether you’re writing an announcement to your team, an email to a teacher, or an essay as part of your college application, whatever it is that you want to say, come right out and say it. Write it as if you are talking one-on-one with someone.

You’ll say a lot more when you don’t hide behind your words.