Is your weakness worth improving?

I’ve written before that too many college applicants spend their high school years trying to fix their weaknesses. Colleges don’t expect you to be perfect. If you want to stand out, you’re a lot better off maximizing your strengths than you are obsessing over what you think will be perceived as a blemish on your application.

But some weaknesses might be worth addressing. And since there’s no formula to help you decide when that’s the case, here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you decide whether to improve or just let it be.

1. Is it actually a weakness?
If you’re getting a D in math, or if you’ve lost friends because you just weren’t all that nice to them, those are weaknesses. And more importantly, they can be improved. But if you got a 1460 on the SAT and you were hoping for a 1500, you don’t have a testing weakness. Your score is good enough already—you’re better off moving on and maximizing a strength. Something just short of perfection is not a weakness. Neither is the identification of one thing that you’re great at. The college admissions process can skew your perception in these areas. So before you go dedicating time and energy to fixing something, make sure the weakness is real, not just perceived.

2. Is the weakness improvable?
Some clichés are true, and “Nobody’s perfect” is one of them. Not every weakness is necessarily improvable. And others that might be improvable can take a lot of work to actually do so. So before you dive in and commit to getting better at something, ask yourself if it’s something you really can improve, and if so, if you’re committed to doing the work it will take to get there. What you want to avoid is spinning your wheels and going nowhere, or spinning just long enough to improve a little, but giving up before you reach your goal. Decide ahead of time if this is a weakness you can change, and if you’re willing to do what it takes to actually do so.

3. Would you be happier or healthier if you fixed this weakness?
It’s hard to argue against fixing a weakness that you genuinely believe would make you happier or healthier if you improved it. But please ask yourself if doing so would actually make that change. Your doctor is the best judge of the health part, and it’s best to double check with her before you launch on your self-improvement plan. But you are the best judge of the happy part. Will this change make you happy, not just the colleges or your coach or your parents? I’m not suggesting that you (or your doctor) are the only one worth listening to. But you’ve only got so many things you can focus on at one time. Make sure that as many of them as possible are things that won’t just make you more successful, but will also leave you happier and healthier.

4. Is the weakness preventing you from doing something, or getting somewhere, important to you?
This is connected to question #1, but focused more on the outcome rather than the emotion behind it. If you’re 50 points away from the SAT score you need to hit for your dream school, that might be worth addressing, especially if you haven’t prepped yet. If the varsity basketball coach told you the only reason you got cut was because of your free throws, spend some time on the line. If you’re at a B+ in your history class and you need at least an A- to get into the AP level you really want to take next year, double down on your study time. Successful people work hard to overcome these kinds of challenges all the time. And putting in the work to reach a goal that means something to you is different from trying to fix every little thing that’s less than perfect.

5. What price (literal or figurative) will you need to pay to fix this?
Money, time, energy, and attention are at a premium for high school students and their families. Will spending more of each mean you’ll be spending less someplace else? And if so, can you afford to reallocate those funds? If you don’t need to pay any money to fix it, and you’ve got enough time, energy, and attention to go around, great! But if you’d have to spend money on a test-prep tutor your family has already paid more than was budgeted, or it would mean less time practicing the trumpet that you love, or you’d need to cut back on your time performing in the school play that’s just about the most fun you have all week, those are real prices to pay. And it’s worth asking yourself if the cost of improving will be worth the eventual payoff.