For parents: free videos from experts

Now that I’m a parent, too, I’m keenly aware that nobody has found the one right way to raise kids.  But the founders of Challenge Success, Madeline Levine (psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More than Grades, Trophies, or ‘Fat Envelopes’) and Denise Pope (senior lecturer at Stanford and author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students) have spent a lot of time studying and working with kids and teens. What they have to say resonated with me even before I’d joined the parenting club and continues to do the same.

They have a number of free videos on the Challenge Success website that might be of interest to parents. Video topics include: how to avoid overdoing activities, how to detect the signs of harmful stress in your kids, and why it is important to find a college that is a good fit. I’ve spent some time watching them and really appreciate not just the helpful advice, but also the understanding and encouraging tone with which they deliver it.

Expect great things

The Pygmalion Effect says that what one person expects from another often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research has shown that when teachers have high expectations for students, those students perform better. The same is true with managers and employees. And yes, it’s also true for parents and their kids.

The more you trust your kids, the more you empower them to take charge of their own college admissions process, the more likely they’ll be to do so and the more successful they’ll be.

But if your expectation is, “He’s 17. He’ll screw it up,” you’re more likely to be proven right.

Expect great things from your kids and you’re more likely to get them. And students, remember that you have to earn it, and that trust begets more trust.

Skin in the game

I’ve written before about how important it is for families to get college planning advice from the right sources. Your high school counselor, admissions reps, reputable private counselors—those sources are almost always more reliable than your friends and neighbors who may be quick to offer up advice about what colleges are looking for, how you should spend your time, what you should write your essay about, etc. While this phenomenon doesn’t seem to happen in medicine, plumbing, or decorating, unsolicited advice runs rampant in college admissions.

Still, it can be hard to ignore a source who seems so certain, especially if you’re a teen and that information is coming from an adult. So here’s a different way to consider whether or not you should listen to someone about your college planning.

If the advice proves to be wrong, will he or she have to answer for it?

When your neighbor shares second-hand information that later proves to be inaccurate, can you really take him to task? You made the choice to listen. You had no professional relationship together. He hasn’t put his credibility or reputation or job security on the line. If this is the worst-case scenario, it’s no wonder he was so quick to casually tell you what you should do.

But the college admissions officer, your high school counselor, your private counselor, even your close family members who are invested in your success—they’ve got a professional and/or personal investment in making sure they’ve given you good information.

Seek out people who know what they are talking about. And if you decide to listen to unsolicited advice from other sources, at the very least, make sure they’ve got some skin in the game.

No wild swings

Seniors, if you’re thinking about starting a club on your high school campus this fall because you’re excited about it, because your school needs it, because you want to bring together like-minded students to do something interesting, or any other reason that doesn’t have to do with college admissions, well then, go forth and start it.

But if you’re doing it just so you can list “Club President” on your application, please don’t bother. Do something else you enjoy and are actually excited about.

College admissions officers are smart folks. They know how to distinguish between something you were actually interested in and something you did just for resume’s appeal, especially when it happens right before college application time.

You’re better off putting your time and energy into things that are important to you than you are taking one last wild swing.

Kurt Vonnegut’s (college essay) advice

Kurt Vonnegut offers up eight tips for writing great short stories, seven of which are perfectly aligned with college essays, too. His portions are in bold.

1. “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

College essays don’t need a moral or a message, but you should never leave the reader wondering why they just bothered reading your essay. An essay about how much you enjoy baking desserts with your grandmother is interesting. An essay about how much you like to eat Oreos probably isn’t.

2. “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

Paradoxically, the worst way to do this is to write what you think the admissions officers want to hear. Just write something honest that actually matters to you. Arun once told me that while he doesn’t much care for opera, if he was reading an essay during his time at University of Chicago or Caltech from a student who was passionate about it, the essay didn’t make Arun interested in opera, but it definitely made him interested in that kid.

3. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

The college essay’s job is to help readers get to know you better. You’re the subject of interest. If you follow rule #1, write honestly about something that matters to you, and keep the focus on you (more on that here), you’ll almost certainly be sharing something that will include at least one of your wants.

4. “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

Want to write better sentences? Start by writing fewer of them. Brevity is a mark of good writing. That’s why good writers do a lot of editing and rewriting to say more with fewer words. Share the details, yes, but don’t use three sentences to describe something that one well-crafted sentence can handle. You might be convinced that you can’t possibly unleash your full essay potential without more words. But you need fewer than you think you do.

5. “Start as close to the end as possible.”

Childhood and other pre-high school experiences can add context. But admissions officers are trying to get to know the you of today. Keep the focus on high school events. For example, an essay about your experience in second grade when you were diagnosed with a learning disability tells them a lot about something that happened over a decade ago. It’s fine to share the discovery portion, but keep the focus on how that learning disability impacts you today.

6. “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

I said at the beginning that 7 of the 8 tips are appropriate for college essays. This is the one to disregard. If something tragic or otherwise difficult has happened to you and you believe it is important for admissions officers to understand it, please share it. But don’t “make awful things happen” because you think that tragedy is somehow rewarded. It’s a common mistake. Admissions officers even have a term for it—“manufacturing hardship,” not because the event itself was fictional, but the purported devastating effects were.

7. “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

You are the most important person to please when it comes to your essays, more important than your parents, friends, even your counselor or teacher. Yes, it’s a good idea to get feedback, especially from someone who a) knows you, and b) knows something about college essays. Your high school counselor, English teacher, or a qualified private counselor are good sources. But please don’t shop your essays around to an endless feedback committee of friends, family members, counselors, etc. The more people you ask, the more conflicting opinions you’ll get. Remember that it’s your essay, your application, and your college future. Please yourself first.

8. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

There’s no need to reveal the ending prematurely. But during reading season, college admissions officers are tired and weary. If after three paragraphs your reader still has no idea what the essay is about or where it’s going, you’re likely to lose their interest fast.

Failure as a recipe for success

One of my favorite stories to share at Collegewise seminars is that of my former student from many years ago, Meg, who wrote her college essay about the fact that she’d lost every election she had ever entered in high school (and there were lots). These were lopsided losses, too. But she was the first to make fun of herself about it. She was likeable, self-deprecating, and at the same time found a way to exude confidence without taking herself too seriously.

She was also admitted to her first-choice college—Notre Dame.

Failure gets a bad rap in college admissions. Kids may think they need to excel at everything they touch, but the truth is that there’s great value in going after something you want, falling short, dusting yourself off, and coming back for more. Colleges know it’s those kids–not the perfectionists who would never put themselves in failure’s path–who are likely to take advantage of the bounty of opportunities available to them in college.

Meg tried hard in all of those elections. And even after her most lopsided of losses, she still came back and ran again for other offices. Multiple times. And in between those failures, she went out and made valuable contributions somewhere else. It would have been clear to anyone who read her application and essay that she was not afraid to challenge herself, that she would never be deterred just because something didn’t work out as planned, and that whatever she was able to get involved in, she found a way to make herself indispensable.

Failure can sometimes be a recipe for success.

The simple formula for getting things done

I’m heading off on vacation for the next ten days, with ten days’ worth of blog posts queued up and ready to post. Like most worker bees, I had plenty to do in preparation for my time off. But I got these blogs written the same way I’d advise a high school student to make great progress on college applications:

1. Start earlier than you need to.
2. Make an artificial deadline.
3. Set aside specific time to get it done.
4. Eliminate all distractions and potential for interruption.
5. Enjoy the relief of having it behind you.

I’m repeating it because it works. I bet it will work for you, too.

Is there more to be done where you are?

Before you add more activities to your after-school docket in the hopes of improving your college admissions odds, is there anything else to be done in or around what you’re already involved in?

Could you take on more responsibility?
Could you learn a related skill that might help you and/or the group?
Could you initiate and lead a project?
Could you find any other way to contribute, make an impact, and leave a legacy?
And most importantly, is there anything you could do that might help you enjoy this activity even more than you already are?

If the activity has run its course and you’re no longer enjoying it, it’s probably time to move on. But you only have so many hours and so much energy to give to things you really enjoy. Don’t be so quick to dilute them by going elsewhere. There might be plenty more to be done where you already are.

Don’t worry

I’ve seen plenty of students and parents who spent the college admissions process in a constant state of worry. Worried about test scores. Worried about impressing prestigious colleges. Worried about whether or not their dream school will say yes.

But I can’t recall a single time where any of that worrying actually changed the outcome for the better.

Worry is not a productive emotion. It distracts kids and parents from those elements they can control. Worrying begets more worrying and ruins what should be an exciting time.

Some families are convinced that all this worry is necessary, unavoidable, or somehow a sign that they are giving the college admissions process the attention it deserves. It’s not. It’s like jealousy, anger, or resentment, something that feels real but almost never makes things any better.

Take your college future seriously, yes. But don’t worry. You’ve got more important, more productive things to do.

Not perfect, but not arbitrary

A recent op-ed piece by the mother of a college applicant (which I’m not sharing here because I think it will feed the flames of fear for some families) described the admissions process of certain selective colleges as “arbitrary,” much to the dismay of many admissions officers and high school counselors who expressed their disappointment on social media.

While I don’t agree with her conclusion, I can certainly understand it.

From the perspective of the kids and parents going through the process, it must seem arbitrary. While most colleges list their application requirements and the average stats for those students who are admitted, the process of deciding who gets offered admission and who does not is still a mystery for most people who haven’t sat in the room or at the very least worked in the industry. Outsiders aren’t privy to the discussions or the institutional needs or any of the other factors that can influence a decision. Kids who get in can celebrate, but those who are denied are given no explanation why. Rational human beings want to make sense of things. When we can’t, it’s not unnatural to conclude that there is no logical explanation.

But I wish that more students and parents could see the care and attention that every application is given, often by multiple readers. I wish they could see the admissions officers poring over every transcript, every essay, and every recommendation. I wish they could see the follow-up calls to counselors to verify information that’s unclear, the personal investment they make in preparing to make a case for their potential admits, and the emotional discussions that take place during committee meetings.

The vast majority of college admissions officers—and we’ve got a lot of counselors here who worked on that side of the desk—are smart, well-meaning, good-hearted people who want to do right by kids. They don’t like denying students who’ve worked hard and wanted to attend. They know that they’re often leaving out students who could absolutely do the work and make great contributions. But when you have too few spaces for too many qualified applicants, decisions need to be made, and they can almost never be done for entirely meritocratic reasons.

That leaves families with two potential paths.

You can insist on applying to colleges that deny most of their students. You can spend the high school years searching for a (non-existent) formula that will make admissions a certainty. You can throw yourself at the mercy of this uncertain outcome and twist in discomfort while waiting for a decision to arrive.

Or you can embrace the fact that there are likely hundreds of colleges that would happily admit you. And for those schools that deny most of their applicants, you can accept that like dating and other forms of human selection, your best path is to do your best, be proud of who you are, and have faith that there are plenty of collegiate fish in the sea if your preferred soul mate doesn’t work out.

It’s not perfect. It’s not even always fair. But it’s not arbitrary, either.