Will you stay for the story?

Startups get a lot of attention in the press. The vision, the big ideas, the risk—it makes for good headlines and memorable stories. But a startup isn’t a business. It’s the start of a business. And starting a business isn’t nearly as difficult as executing your idea, keeping your promises, and staying in business.

Activities in college admissions work the same way.

Many students want to highlight the startup-style headline on their college applications. They proudly list that they “started a club,” “founded a non-profit,” “or “launched a fundraiser.” But colleges know to look for evidence of the story that follows the start. If your club only held one meeting, if your non-profit exists in the paperwork alone, if the fundraiser never actually raised funds, your startup story doesn’t have the same impact.

I’m not discounting the value of initiative (I’ve written about its importance before). And I’m not suggesting that colleges will only appreciate what you start based on how you finish. In fact, there’s a lot you can learn from trying your best to execute something that didn’t work. But even learning that lesson will require that you do more than just start.

So yes, if you’ve got an idea, if you see a need you can fill, if you’ve got the gumption to take the lead and the risk, then start, found, launch, etc.

But if your only motivation is to list the start on your college application, you might consider redirecting your time and attention to something where you’d be excited to stay for the story.

Don’t let someone hijack your morning mood

According to researcher and author Michelle Gielan, checking email first thing in the morning can ruin your entire day. Psychologically, just one negative email, even if it’s offset by plenty of positive messages, can color your outlook and lead you to report having a bad day even hours later. If you’ve ever started your morning by reading a snarky comment, an angry message, or an announcement of bad news, you’ve probably experienced that emotional hangover that can linger.

Everyone, from students to parents to counselors, has to process more incoming communication than any generation before. You probably can’t get away from email negativity entirely. But why take the risk of letting just one message hijack your morning mood? We all might be better off starting our days on our own terms.

Trend upwards

Most students and parents have heard the message that the best way to improve your chances of admission to college is to get good grades in challenging courses. But if you’re a freshman, sophomore, or junior who feels like you haven’t necessarily shown colleges what you’re capable of, it’s not too late.

Your list of classes and accompanying GPA provides a nice summary of your academic career. But many colleges, especially private schools, will also look at your academic trends. Do you appear to be getting academically stronger with age? Are you progressively challenging yourself more, and performing better in those classes, than you have in the past? Colleges call this an upward trend, and it can sometimes prove to be just as important (if not more so) as the sum of your academic accomplishments.

This is particularly important for a student who may feel dejected about underperforming, one who is worried that her college fate has already been sealed and may not see the point of working harder. There’s still time. This semester, next semester, next year, etc. Colleges will even evaluate your course selection for your senior year, and many schools will also look at your seventh semester (the first semester of your senior year) grades before they make an admissions decision. That means even a junior still has several vital opportunities left to buckle down and trend upward.

There’s no way to erase what’s happened in the past. But it’s not too late to start a new trend.

Natural parental leadership

The former quarterback of my high school’s football team is having a good week. His son, also a quarterback, is starting college as a spring admit. And Dad has been spilling pride all over social media.

He posted updates as the family prepared for his son’s departure. He posted videos of the family enjoying the new student orientation on campus. He posted pics of the dorm room with the headline, “All moved in!” Every one of these posts brims with Dad’s excitement and pride.

And while his post reminding fellow parents that dropping your child off at college is a bittersweet moment that doesn’t get any easier (this is his second time going through this), he closed by expressing that he was feeling proud, blessed, and happy for his son.

The college? Northern Arizona University.

This is a dad who’s embracing this experience as one to enjoy as a family. He’s injecting fun, pride, and excitement into the process, which only makes his son feel (even more) loved and supported. And he’s behaving as if he’s only going to get to do this once with each of his kids, because that is exactly what will happen.

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why his son is beaming in all these posts (not a single teenage eye roll in sight). But Dad has done his part to instill that feeling in his son.

He was a natural leader on the football field nearly 20 years ago. He’s a natural leader as a parent in the college admissions process. And I can’t imagine a better example for parents to follow as their kids find their way to the right colleges.

Secondhand stress

I’ve written before about just how harmful parental peer pressure can be during the college admissions process. It just takes a couple of misguided friends to make you feel like your family is behind, at a disadvantage, and at the mercy of a cutthroat process where only the straight-A’s survive.

It turns out there’s actually a scientific basis to this. Shawn Achor is a Harvard professor of positive psychology. As he describes in this five-minute talk, when he and his team look at actual brain scans, they can see changes occurring based on a subject’s surroundings.

“It turns out that negativity, stress, uncertainty—we can actually pick it up like secondhand smoke. You don’t even have to be the one smoking to have negative health effects. The same is true around the ways that our brains are designed. If you’re surrounded by people who are pessimistic about the future, they’re gossiping, they’re negative, they’re full of complaints, even if you have an optimistic brain, your brain will start to process the world like that person is unless we’re conscious of it.”

One of the core tenets of a successful, enjoyable college admissions process is to focus on the parts that you can control (while letting go of the other parts). You can’t control the way fellow parents behave. But you can control your own behavior, and whether or not you engage with those people who ruin what should be an exciting time for your family.

You’re only going to experience this transition from high school to college once with each of your kids. Don’t let other parents ruin it for you. Spend time with other people who love their kids and just want to see them happy at whatever school they attend, who don’t feel the need to turn this into a status competition, and who project an air of support and that you’re all in this together.

Your family’s college admissions process will be happier and healthier without secondhand stress.

How engaged are you?

After 30 years with over 30 million employees, The Gallup Organization has found that a highly engaged workforce is the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors and one that fails to grow. And their descriptions of the different levels of engagement may help students identify just how engaged they are in their chosen activities.

Gallup breaks employees into three different categories of engagement:

1. Engaged.
These are the passionate people who care deeply about the success of their organization. The mission and goals speak to their values. They work hard because the work and the organization matter to them.

2. Disengaged
The disengaged are checked out. They show up to work and do what they have to do so they won’t get fired. But they don’t feel connected to the company or the work. They’re not bringing energy or new ideas. And they have no interest in putting forth any extra effort beyond the minimum.

3. Actively Disengaged
These folks are just plain unhappy at work. And they act out on that unhappiness. They don’t just decline to contribute anything. They work against the organization by undermining what their boss and their coworkers are trying to get done.

Look at how you’re choosing to spend your time outside of school. Are you excited by what you do? Does it matter to you? Do you work hard because you love the work, the people, and the purpose? Do you light up when you talk about it?

Or are you just going through the motions? Even worse, are you making negative contributions?

The students who fit the definition of “engaged” with their activities are the ones who show the most passion, who make the biggest impact, and who stand out to colleges.

If you don’t fit that definition, try a new approach. Or try a new activity.

Financial aid is where the fit is

Last week, the counselors in our Collegewise office in Newton, Massachusetts calculated that so far, their seniors had been awarded a total of $776,250 in scholarships for the 2017-18 school year. That doesn’t even include loans or work study. Almost a million dollars of free money that doesn’t have to be paid back. And that’s just for those applicants who applied early action and early decision.

What’s notable here is that like the rest of our Collegewise offices, our Newton counselors don’t offer scholarship services.

Collegewise counselors don’t do scholarship advising or matching. We don’t assist with financial aid paperwork. We don’t run a complex analysis of schools’ records of financial aid generosity. We’re happy to try to answer questions around these areas. And of course, we make sure our Collegewise families know what forms need to be submitted and when to apply for need-based financial aid. But we don’t profess to be financial aid or scholarship experts. So that’s not a service that we sell.

So how did our Newton office do it? They helped their students (1) find the right colleges that fit, (2) apply to a balanced list of schools that include plenty where they have a reasonable chance of admission, and (3) submit compelling applications and essays. A student who does those three things dramatically increases the chances of receiving a generous financial aid package.

Financial aid isn’t just a measurement of cost and what your family can afford to pay. Financial aid offices have a lot of power to offer more generous packages to students they think are right for the school and are more likely to attend. That’s why finding schools that fit, balancing your list, and submitting strong applications is a powerful financial aid strategy.

The mission of the financial aid office is to help those admitted students make up the difference between what they can afford to pay and what the school costs. But the specific aid package you’re offered, and whether or not that package is even more generous than what you’re eligible for, can have a lot to do with how badly the admissions office wants you at that school. A strong student who fits well with that college is more likely to get a generous award package that has more free money, with fewer loans or work study components.

In fact, a particularly desirable student can often receive a scholarship that has absolutely nothing to do with financial need. That’s why every year our Collegewise seniors across the country receive generous—and often unsolicited—offers of financial aid and scholarships from their chosen colleges. It’s not our focus. It’s a byproduct of what we do best.

If you want more financial aid, find the schools where you fit, including those that are most likely to accept you. Then convince them of that fit with your applications and your essays. That strategy is available to any student of any means who rejects the idea of applying to a long list of colleges based on name only and embraces the idea of matchmaking.

As the parents of this year’s juniors start down the path towards applying to college, here are a few past posts to help families take some productive steps now to pay for one of those colleges that eventually says yes.

First, some financial aid strategies for 9th-11th graders.

Here’s some encouragement to talk with your kids about college costs.

And some advice about how to balance your college list.

Finally, a reminder that affordability is part of fit.

Congratulations to our Newton office and to their students. They proved once again that financial aid is where the fit is.

Transparency

I needed to reserve a meeting room for a training I’ll be holding for Collegewisers in Seattle. So I went online and tried to use a popular workspace rental company. Before I clicked “Get a Quote,” I decided to click on the “Terms and Conditions” just to see what I was agreeing to.

Among other things, just asking how much a room costs meant that I was agreeing to:

  • receive telephone calls and text messages, even if I’m on a Do-Not-Call list
  • receive telephone calls for the purpose of marketing
  • receive e-mails
  • receive phone calls placed by an automatic telephone number dialing system
  • receive telephone communications containing pre-recorded messages
  • receive calls from contractors and third-party companies

I can’t imagine someone willingly agreeing to that arrangement, which is exactly why the company hides it, makes it the potential customer’s responsibility to unearth it, and then tricks people into agreeing to it.

Imagine how absurd this would be in our personal lives.

Thanks for asking me to go out on a date with you. If you had taken the time to learn about my terms and conditions, you’d know that you’ve now given me permission to call, text, or email you whenever I feel like it even if you start dating someone else. You’ve also agreed to let my friends, relatives, and even a computer call you on my behalf. And sometimes it won’t even be a real person calling—just a recording of something I, not you, think is important. And you’ve agreed to let me keep doing those things until you fill out a form expressly telling me to stop (at which point I’ll gladly comply in 5-7 business days).

Sound ridiculous? Maybe even a little underhanded and creepy? Yes, and that’s the point.

Spam has become so rampant that too many businesses, colleges, and organizations seem to just accept that it’s OK to engage it. But that’s the classic “Everybody’s doing it!” argument. Your customers deserve better than this. You deserve better than this. Any campaign or tactic that tricks people into doing something is only going to make it harder for them to trust you in the future.

“Transparency” is one of those business clichés that’s completely lost its oomph. But the sentiment is still a good one. Would your business, school, or organization be proud to stand up and say publicly, “Here’s what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it”? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track. But if the answer is no, and even worse, if it’s something you’d feel compelled to hide, that’s a good reason to reconsider.

Look for the teaching moments

One of a parent’s most important goals during the high school years should be to prepare their student for life on his or her own, without managing every decision, challenge, and uncertainty. It’s not that you’ll ever stop being a parent—it’s a lifetime gig and your kids won’t ever stop needing you. But unless you plan on moving into the dorm next door (not a good idea), the roles, both yours and your student’s, are going to change. The high school years are the perfect opportunity to prepare by looking for the teaching moments.

“Can you take care of this?”
The first step is to look for opportunities to stop doing for your kids those things that they could do for themselves. That’s the teaching moment. Start by asking them more questions and to describe what they’re facing. If they’re having trouble in a class and want you to talk to their teacher for them, ask them to tell you more about what kind of trouble they’re having, how long it’s been a problem, and what they’ve tried so far. Questions like these move kids from dropping a situation on your plate–and waiting for you to fix it–to examining what’s facing them. They can’t find the answers if they don’t first learn how to examine the problems.

“What do you think I should do?”
As kids get better at assessing what’s facing them, they’ll move to seeking your advice. “Can you take care of this?” will become, “What do you think I should do?” Instead of just answering the question, use it as a teaching moment. Ask if they’ve tried anything to solve it themselves, and if not, what they’ve considered. Help them think through their options, and explain your thinking, too, as you come up with an answer together. The goal is to move them from asking you for a solution to presenting you with one they found themselves.

“Here’s what I’m going to do.”
As their confidence builds, kids will begin coming to you to share not just a problem, but also their intended solution. It’s a way of checking in to make sure they’re not missing a better option or making an irreversible mistake. The teaching moment presented here is to highlight what they’re doing right, even if you don’t entirely agree with the course of action. If they’re examining the challenge, considering solutions, and showing the initiative to make a choice, they’re on the right path. Remember, the goal isn’t necessarily for them to do everything perfectly the first time. It’s to learn from these experiences, and that means that some lessons will sting more than others. Have faith that while you’re not protecting them from every potential disappointment, you’re setting them up for independence, success, and happiness.

“Here’s what I did.”
Eventually, one of two things will happen. Your kids will either begin coming to you to share how they’ve handled what’s faced them, or they’ll stop sharing updates at all because they’ve learned to take care of those things that formerly resided on your docket. Both scenarios are parental victories. When you do learn of these instances, praise the effort and thinking even if the outcome wasn’t perfect. That’s your teaching moment, and it will only increase their confidence in themselves and their trust that you’re still looking out for them even if you’re no longer their manager, assistant, and publicist.

It’s a process, one that takes faith in your parenting and in your own son or daughter. And like most parts of parenting, there’s no short class to take to learn exactly how to do it. But the good news is that while there may not always be a right answer, there will be plenty of available teaching moments.

How to handle pre-interview panic

It happens to even the most successful, most confident applicants. You schedule a college interview. You mentally prepare and choose a good outfit. And then moments before the interview, the stress kicks in and your mind starts racing with the worst kind of negative self-talk.

I’m going to blow this.

He’ll ask me something I can’t answer.

She knows about that C in geometry freshman year.

So many kids are more accomplished than I am.

I have no business even applying here.

I’m a fraud and she knows it.

I just want to run away.

Sound too dramatic? Just wait. It will happen to many seniors reading this, even the valedictorian with perfect test scores and too many awards to count.

I’m not bringing this up to stress you out. I mention it now because it’s terrible to be surprised by these thoughts two minutes before game time. And by addressing it preemptively, I can give you a few ways to deal with it.

First, you should know that these thoughts don’t pop up because they’re real. They appear because your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for avoiding danger and staying alive, is firing. Early humans didn’t need to take a class to know that they should run away from that dangerous predator, to do what they had to do to get food and water, or to reproduce. That primal part of their brain just told them to do these things, no questions asked.

We’ve evolved, but the amygdala is still there. Intellectually, you know that a college interview is not akin to being stalked by a predator. But the most primal part of your brain can’t make the distinction. So all those thoughts you’re having are its way of telling you that you’re in danger, that you can’t survive this, and that you need to protect yourself by getting the heck outta there. You’ve probably felt it before when walking out to the pitcher’s mound, asking someone on a date, or sitting down to take the ACT. It’s trying to protect you even when you don’t need protection.

If you’d already done a dozen college interviews, this wouldn’t be a problem. The same could be said for the all-state pitcher who’s already got a contract lined up, or the student who’s never been turned down for a dance, or the test-taker who’s never seen a result below the 99th percentile. Do something well enough for long enough and your brain will find something else to irrationally worry about. But most of you won’t have that luxury with college interviews.

So, what to do about it?

First, it’s important to understand that it’s nearly impossible to catapult yourself to admission or to sentence yourself to a denial based on the interview alone. This is the least important part of the college admissions process. Your three years of hard work, your application, the essays, the letters of rec—all of them say a lot more about you, and carry more weight, than a short conversation with someone you’ve just met does. Of course, don’t blow it off or act like the interview doesn’t matter. It does matter. Just not enough to ruin anything unless you really work hard to ignore, offend, or injure the interviewer.

And while you can’t remove your amygdala, you can quiet it down by acknowledging it and expecting it to show up. When you feel those thoughts start to creep in, don’t panic. Just say to yourself, “Here it is—I’ve been expecting it.” That action alone will make you feel more in control and will reinforce that you’re ready for what comes next.

Here are two past posts that will also help you deal with these thoughts when they arrive. The first explains that it’s useful to remind yourself that stress is often a sign that your body is rising to a challenge. And the second will help you embrace the right self-talk.