What happens to valedictorians?

From Time Magazine’s recent article, “Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows”:

“Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation onward to see what becomes of those who lead the academic pack. Of the 95 percent who went on to graduate college, their average GPA was 3.6, and by 1994, 60 percent had received a graduate degree. There was little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. They are reliable, consistent, and well-adjusted, and by all measures the majority have good lives. But how many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero.”

Are those straight-A students wasting their time? Is high school a pointless exercise in the grand scheme of future success? No, and the researcher’s findings do not suggest those conclusions either.

Students who earn top grades in challenging courses are availing themselves of more college options and more generous financial aid packages. They’re preparing for the intellectual rigor college will demand. And I think most importantly, they’re demonstrating the work ethic and discipline that will be crucial for success in just about any field. It’s hard to argue with those benefits.

But no matter what a student’s GPA might be, grades don’t measure everything. They can neither secure nor torpedo your future. Your GPA is a snapshot of your classroom performance in high school, a number that, by itself, has far greater short-term significance than it does long-term.

For families who are interested in considering and even discussing success in high school, how to measure it, and how to begin cultivating the traits that will help a student carry that success into the future, here are three past posts to get you started:

Help kids develop long-term traits

You can’t earn straight A’s in life

No right answer = more learning

Put the truth on the table

When I was a senior in college completing my year-long stint with four colleagues as a summer orientation coordinator, we were tasked with interviewing and hiring the next crew of five students who would replace us. We’d spent the last year putting our time and hearts into a program that was very special to us, and we wanted to leave it in the right hands.

One of the most promising applicants, Neil, also had some spotty portions of his college history. He’d accomplished a lot in his three years on campus, leading important organizations, initiating necessary change on campus, and doing the kind of difficult work that gets you noticed. But he’d also had some very public fallouts with fellow leaders and even a few campus officials. The program needed his talents, but it didn’t need the baggage and chaos we were concerned might come with him.

There was no way around it—we had to express our concern and ask him to tell us more about those events.

He could have gotten defensive. He could have made excuses, tried to spin it, or blamed someone else. But instead, Neil just sighed, looked right at us and said,

“I’ve done a lot wrong while I’ve been here. I’ve made a lot of mistakes…”

I don’t even recall the rest of his answer. I know it involved what he’d learned and what he would do differently in the future. But honestly, those lessons weren’t as important to us as was the assurance that he didn’t blame anybody else, took ownership of his fault in some (though likely not all) of the experiences, and expressed regret that led to learning.

So we hired him. And he did a fantastic job.

“Everyone makes mistakes” is one of those clichés that’s true. Billionaire investor and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, was asked in this interview:

“You’ve gotten fired from or quit multiple jobs. When people go through that and then have to explain it in their next job interviews, what should they say?”

Cuban’s answer? “The truth.”

Nobody, from high schools, to colleges, to employers, expects you to be perfect. But they do expect that you’ll accept and acknowledge your mistakes. If you’re asked about them, own up to your role. Prove that you recognize what you did or did not do that caused things to go badly.

The far more positive discussion about what you learned and what you would do differently next time will almost certainly ensue. But your audience will be a lot more open to hearing and believing it once you’ve put the truth on the table.

Wandering generality vs. meaningful specific

Too many students approach the college admissions process the same way:

They take the classes they’re supposed to take, but they don’t have a favorite subject or teacher.

They join clubs and hold leadership positions and do community service driven not by a sense of joy or commitment, but by the notion that it’s what colleges want.

Rather than find the colleges that fit, they apply only to famous schools and resolve to go to the “best” one they get into.

They’re good kids who’ve worked hard. But because they don’t stand for anything, they don’t stand out. They look exactly the same on paper as countless other applicants who executed, checked the right boxes, and now expect to be rewarded with an admission to a highly selective college. They’re wandering generalities.

Instead of a wandering generality, be a meaningful specific.

The meaningful specifics took all the right classes, but love history, or reading, or math. They have a favorite class or teacher and they can tell you what they’re excited to learn in college.

The meaningful specifics don’t just list their activities. They excitedly talk about how much these involvements meant to them. And they can point to the projects they initiated, the difference they made, and the legacy they’ll leave when they’re done.

The meaningful specifics have big expectations of themselves and their future colleges. They want more than just a famous name alone. They think deeply about what they hope or expect to gain from college, thoughtfully search for the schools that fit, and then make it their mission to extract the maximum value once they’re there.

You don’t necessarily need to have your college, your major, and your future career picked out when you’re sixteen. Plenty of meaningful specifics are focused on what they’re doing today without a roadmap of what they’ll be doing many tomorrows from now.

But you, your time, and your future are valuable. You deserve more than to plod through your days doing what everybody else does, hoping that a college with a famous name will make you successful.

Instead, listen to your mind, your heart, and your gut. Learn things that interest you, spend your time doing what you love, and look for schools that will give you the tools and the environment where you can best take the next step in your life.

Meaningful specifics are what you deserve. And meaningful specifics are how you stand out.

Is college admission fair?

College admission decisions often don’t make sense to outside observers. Why is one student admitted over another? How could the seemingly perfect kid be denied? How can a student be accepted at one school but denied at another statistically less selective?

The entire process can seem arbitrary, and even unfair. This new post from the Georgia Tech Admissions Blog agrees (bold emphasis is theirs):

“‘That’s not fair!’ Well, my friends, neither is college admission. If you applied to a college that has a selective (meaning below 33% admit rate) process, or if you are a counselor, principal, parent, friend of someone who has gone through this lately, you know this to be true. Inevitably, you know someone who was denied or waitlisted that was ‘better’ or ‘more qualified’ or ‘should have gotten in.’ I try not to specifically speak for my colleagues, but I feel confident saying this for anyone that works at a highly selective college that has just denied a ton of the students you are thinking about/calling about/inquiring about: We know. It’s NOT fair. You’re not crazy. In fact, we’d be the first to concur that there are many denied students with higher SAT/ACT scores or more community service or more APs or who wrote a better essay or participated in more clubs and sports than some who were admitted. But here is what is critical for you to understand– ultimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit– is not about fairness. It’s about mission.”

After you read the article, please remember that while the decisions might not always seem to make sense, they’re rarely arbitrary, as this past post explains.

Life grades on a curve

A recent Atlantic article, “The Ethos of the Overinvolved Parent,” made the rounds in our counselor and admissions officer social media groups yesterday, generating frustration with the reality but also a fair amount of understanding, especially from fellow parents, about why it’s so hard to let go.

Stacy, the mother interviewed for the article, argues that for $65,000 a year—the cost of her daughter’s “prestigious private college”—she won’t hesitate to call school officials when she perceives things aren’t going well. That’s exactly what happened when Stacy’s daughter waited four weeks for the school to schedule an interview for a desirable internship at a local hospital. Stacy intervened and called her daughter’s advisor.

As Stacy describes today’s college experience:

“‘It’s a lot for them to navigate, and it wouldn’t be fair to tell them to navigate it on their own,’ she said. ‘It’s not called helicopter parenting. It’s called Parenting 2017.’”

I can see the basis for this argument. Parents like Stacy pay a lot of money for college. And they’re evaluating not only what the post-college return on that investment will be, but also the degree to which the promises are being kept for the benefactors—the students.

But here’s the twist I would add. At what point will it be her daughter’s responsibility to manage her own life, and how soon before then should she be allowed to start learning those lessons?

I don’t know what steps Stacy’s daughter had taken with her advisor to get that interview scheduled. Had she checked by phone or email? Did she visit during office hours? Did she offer to schedule the interview herself, only to have all of these efforts rebuffed or ignored?

Or did she just sit back and “frantically wait” as the article describes it?

Whichever scenario it was, it would seem that the only lesson this student likely learned is that when she experiences a frustration or setback, Mom will swoop in and fix it for her.

What would have been the worst-case scenario had Stacy not intervened? The student doesn’t get the internship? I find it hard to believe that there’s only one worthwhile internship available to a college kid in Boston. And the lesson learned might have been an invaluable one—if you really want something, show initiative. Be resourceful. Don’t just sit back and “frantically wait.”

The world is not a place that caters to our every whim. We all have to face obstacles, deal with difficult or unresponsive people, and navigate our way through situations that don’t have a clear path or correct answer. It takes time to learn how to do these things. There’s no class kids can take to learn the steps in just one semester.

But life is its own best teacher here. It will throw a lot of material at kids as they get older. And this instructor is also forgiving of many wrong answers as long as kids learn from their mistakes. It’s up to parents to let their kids enroll in this course, and to commit to offering only the occasional guidance or tutoring rather than jumping in to do the homework or take the tests for their students.

Students won’t get a perfect grade in this particular class—nobody does. But most successful people have failed in their lives. And that’s proof that life grades on a curve.

Five ways counselors can get honest feedback from students

The pressure of the college admissions process doesn’t just cause some students to measure and make every decision based on how they think it will affect their admissions chances. It also leaves many students out of touch or even completely unaware of their honest feelings, desires, and goals. For the counselors trying to not only advise them, but also help kids find happiness and fulfillment wherever they go, it can be difficult to get real, honest answers to college-related questions. Here are five ways to help students let go of the admissions implications and actually reveal what they really think and want.

1. “If you could never list this on your college applications…”
Do you have a student who’s debating between two concurrent classes? Or trying to decide whether or not to attend a summer program? Or asking if they should continue with their community service project, sport, or other activity they might now be second-guessing? Remove the admissions implication of the decision by posing the scenario, “If you could never list this on your college applications, what would you do?” This scenario often strips away the desire to please colleges and helps kids tell you what they actually would want to do if colleges would never be privy to it. Maybe they know which class they want to take but are just afraid they won’t do well? Maybe their parents are a lot more excited about that summer program than the student is? Maybe they’ve fallen out of like with an activity but are worried that leaving it behind will make them look like a quitter to their colleges? The student may or may not be best served by actually doing what they answer in this scenario. But at least you’ll have a better sense of what the student actually wants.

2. “What would you do if a million dollars were at stake?”
I call this the “million dollar scenario,” and it’s a great way to help a student differentiate between an excuse and a real obstacle.

“I can’t get to school on time for a class that early…”

“I’ll be too busy to study for the SAT this summer…”

“I can’t get a good grade in her class because the teacher doesn’t like me…”

A counselor can say, “If you were promised a million dollars if you pulled this off, what would you do differently?”

Now you’ve got the student thinking of solutions rather than excuses. The described actions might not be worth pursuing if it’s clear the student would be sacrificing too much sleep, sanity, or happiness to win the big prize. But as a counselor, once you’ve got the student proposing just exactly how something could get done, you can assess whether the proposed actions are actually in the student’s best interest.

3. “On a scale of 1-10…”
If you want to gauge how serious a student is about an expressed interest or desire, pose a “scale of 1-10” scenario, define the ranges, and then listen carefully to the answer.

“On a scale of 1-10, how important is it for you to play sports in college? 1 means you’d gladly leave your sport behind, 10 is that you would not attend a college where you would not have the opportunity to play your sport.”

“On a scale of 1-10, how hard do you work in your studies? 1 is you don’t work at all, 10 is that you couldn’t possibly work any harder.”

“On a scale of 1-10, how sure are you that you want to major in business? 1 is that you’d go to a college you liked even if it didn’t have a business major, 10 is that you would never go to a college that had everything else you liked except a business major.”

Bonus tip: if you sense that parents and the student aren’t exactly on the same page on a topic, pose the 1-10 scenario to both parties, and let each answer separately.

4. “It’s just you and me talking right now…”
Ever feel like your student is giving canned answers, maybe channeling their parents or what they imagine colleges would want to hear? Pause, assume a relaxed posture, and say, “It’s just you and me talking right now…” The emphasis you’re going for here is not confidentiality (although that’s important, too). You’re reminding the student that this is just a conversation, not a test, an interview, or anything that will later be transcribed to colleges. It helps students worry less about giving what they think is the right answer and concentrate more on finding—and sharing—the honest one. I’ve found this technique particularly useful when helping students brainstorm responses to a college essay prompt. Their most meaningful activity, their interest in the school, the time they failed or made a mistake–remind them, “It’s just you and me talking right now” and you’ll usually see them relax and open up with fewer reservations.

5. “If there were a state law requiring/prohibiting…”
If a student has trouble considering a scenario without letting go of the college admissions implications, take admissions off the table and replace it with a state law.

“If there were a state law prohibiting you from taking the SAT again, what would you do with that time you would have spent preparing?”

“If there were a state law requiring that every word of this essay response be not only true, but also sincere, how would you describe your reasons you want to apply to this college?”

“If there were a state law prohibiting you from participating in more than three activities, which ones would you feel OK leaving behind?”

With all of these tips, a savvy counselor will still need to evaluate and discuss whether or not a student’s honest answer is actually an advisable course of action to take. But one of the challenges of working with teens, particularly those who are pressured by the college admissions crunch, is uncovering the real thoughts and feelings behind the college applicant. When that pressure keeps a lid on students’ responses, use one of these techniques to help them open up.

When great parenting = great managing

The increasing complexity of the college admissions process can occasionally leave parents unclear as to what they should be doing to best support their kids. Yes, we all know to take care of them and to love them unconditionally. But when does supporting them become over-parenting? When does backing off become disengaging from their lives? When does encouraging them to pursue their dreams become pushing them too hard? Much like the job of a great manager is to help their employees be happy and successful at work, an argument could be made that one important job of a great parent is to help kids be happy and successful in life. Here are five ways great parenting looks like great managing.

1. Define what success looks like.
A good manager doesn’t just define the job responsibilities—she defines what success looks like in the role, how it’s measured, and why it’s important to the mission of the company. A great parent can take the same approach with his kids. Rather than create a narrow definition that ties to transcripts and test scores, think of the values you’d like your kids to develop and take with them when they leave the nest, like work ethic, character, curiosity, and kindness. High school is going to end someday, but a broader definition of success, one that isn’t prescribed by the college admissions process, is something they bring with them into adulthood.

2. Offer regular recognition and praise.
Great managers know that effective praise and recognition can help employees better understand both their own value and what’s important to the organization. And great parents know that one of the best ways to encourage the success they define in #1 is to recognize and praise the right behaviors when they see them. I’ve written two past posts, here and here, on how to praise effectively.

3. Let them find their own route to success.
The best managers don’t legislate every step an employee should take to do an important job well. And they don’t constantly jump in and take over to make sure things are done to their exacting standards. Instead, they describe the desired outcomes, offer appropriate support to guide their people, then let their employees find their own individual routes to get there. Great parents make their expectations clear, but they also acknowledge that every kid is different. They recognize and appreciate what makes each of their kids unique. Instead of expecting that your kids will approach the world exactly as you or their siblings do, encourage them to find how they learn, work, and thrive best.

4. Allow for recoverable failures.
Workplaces can’t benefit from innovation if they don’t allow people to try things that might not work. So great managers encourage employees to experiment, to initiate, and to try new things, all while making sure that any potential failure is one that’s acceptable and recoverable. Great parents appreciate that many of the best opportunities for learning and growth come from the failure that follows trying something that’s new, different, or challenging for their kids. As long as kids aren’t doing anything to put their health or their future at risk (crimes, not test scores, put their future at risk), the occasional recoverable failure can breed resilience, knowledge, and long-term success. Embrace and encourage those opportunities, help them see the ensuing lessons, and enjoy the benefits that come from raising kids who aren’t afraid to fail.

5. Care about the person, not just the results.
Great managers don’t just care about the work—they care about the people behind the work. Employees need to know that they are more than just a name on a paycheck and that someone is concerned about them as people first and employees second. I know that parents don’t need to be reminded to care about their kids. But kids need to know—and to occasionally be reminded—that their parents love them for who they are, not just for what they achieve. Don’t allow the college admissions process to overshadow what’s really important. Happy, healthy kids who feel cared about will bring more joy and fulfillment to your family than any grade, test score, or admissions decisions will.

Looking for “need-blind” colleges?

“Need-blind” colleges are those that make admissions decisions without considering—or in many cases, even having knowledge of—whether or not a student will require financial aid to attend. If you’re a family who’s concerned not only about paying for college, but also that your financial need could somehow be held against you in the admissions process, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has put together this helpful list of the 100 colleges that identify themselves as need-blind.

It’s important to understand, however, that just because a college is not on this list does not mean that they make admissions decisions based on who can pay and who cannot. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you should hesitate to apply for financial aid at any school, need-blind or not. I’ve written on this topic several times in the past, but for new readers, here are the past posts that I hope will not only assuage your fears that applying for financial aid will somehow be held against you, but also encourage you to file the necessary forms for the aid you need to attend college:

Can applying for financial aid hurt your chances of admission?

Applying vs. needing

Should you indicate that you will apply for financial aid?

Know-it-alls vs. learn-it-alls

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella originally read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success from the context of his own kids’ education. But one of the ideas stuck with him so much that he’s tried to inculcate it through the Microsoft culture: be a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all.

As Nadella describes in this interview:

“The author [Dweck] describes the simple metaphor of kids at school. One of them is a ‘know-it-all’ and other is a ‘learn-it-all’, and the ‘learn-it-all’ always will do better than the other one even if the ‘know-it-all’ kid starts with much more innate capability. Going back to business: If that applies to boys and girls at school, I think it also applies to CEOs, like me, and entire organizations, like Microsoft. We want to be not a ‘know-it-all’ but ‘learn-it-all’ organization.”

While I’ve never heard it put that way, colleges are looking for exactly the same kind of attitude from applicants. But since the pithy phrase could easily be misinterpreted, here’s how to cultivate a learn-it-all attitude in high school.

Of course, you are not expected to actually “learn it all.” But colleges appreciate a student who’s curious, a student who actually enjoys learning for its own sake and not just as a way to get a grade to boost a GPA.

They appreciate a student who has a favorite class and a favorite teacher.

They appreciate a student who lets their curiosity propel them to learn things outside of school, whether it’s college-level calculus, cooking authentic Korean food, or rebuilding an automotive engine.

They appreciate a student who’s excited about all the learning that’s waiting for them in college.

And most importantly, they appreciate a student who is comfortable admitting what they don’t know and what they wish they understood better. That’s the true genius of the learn-it-alls. To them, learning isn’t an accomplishment—it’s an attitude, one that recognizes how interesting and complex the world is and continuously propels them forward with more learning.

Know-it-alls behave like they already know all they need to know. Learn-it-alls behave like they can never know enough.

When should you take the SAT/ACT?

Our friends at Compass Education Group have a great post that answers one of the most basic college planning questions: “When should I take the SAT/ACT?” Make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page to download the PDF.

Also, College Board is offering its first August administration of the SAT this year. If you’re considering taking that exam, register as soon as possible. It’s expected to be a popular date, and we’ve heard reports of some sites already registered to capacity.