Lack of effort vs. lack of fear

As often as I write here about the potential value of failure as both a life teacher and even a college admissions advantage, it’s one of those concepts that many families are uncomfortable embracing. I don’t blame them. They get so many messages about the need for college applicants to be perfect (they don’t need to be, but that’s often the message), it feels risky to do anything where they might feel like they could fail, and riskier still to actually admit or borderline celebrate that failure within a college essay or an application.

But this recent New York Times piece, On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus, shares how many colleges, including some that are quite selective, are going as far as to teach the value of failure. Even the skeptics might be interested to read the examples of kids so used to perfection that they can’t even handle not getting the room assignment they wanted, much less failing a test. Full disclosure, the author is a friend of mine, but I would have shared this even without that association.

I don’t see the concept of colleges acknowledging–and even teaching–failure as much of a stretch. Colleges want students who will not only work hard, but also avail themselves of the nearly limitless options for learning, growth, challenge, etc. during their four years on campus. Schools need students who are fearless in those pursuits, who accept that aiming high comes with the risk that you might fall short, who will not only resist the urge to crumble when something doesn’t go as they’d hoped, but also learn from those experiences and come back even more prepared the next time.

It’s those students, not those who huddle close to their comfort zones where success is more assured, who are most successful during and after college.

Failure due to lack of effort is one thing. Failure due to lack of fear is an entirely different—and more admirable—one.

How to get a college essay jump start

Soon-to-be college applicants, here’s a great way to start your college essays—and to improve your college essay writing—before most applications are available. Write 1-2 paragraph responses to the following ten questions using these criteria:

  • Be completely honest. Nobody will see, grade, or evaluate your responses, so you have nothing at all to lose.
  • Use specific stories to illustrate what you’re describing.
  • Write as if you were talking to your favorite teacher, someone you respect but also feel comfortable talking with.
  1. Which activity has meant the most to you and why?
  2. Which activity will miss you the most next year and why?
  3. What’s your favorite subject/class/teacher and why?
  4. What’s something you’d like to learn more about when you get to college?
  5. When have you failed or made a mistake during your high school years, and what did you learn from it?
  6. What have you made a conscious effort to learn about outside of your high school classes? These could be academic topics, skills, hobbies, interests, etc.
  7. Name three things that you’re just naturally good at (subjects, skills, jobs, etc.).
  8. What is something that you’re just not good at, no matter how hard you try?
  9. What has been your proudest moment of high school? (It doesn’t matter whether it’s impressive or important to other people; it just has to matter to you.)
  10. When you imagine the things you hope or expect to gain from college, which 2-3 would be at the top of your list and why?

Now, when the applications become available, you’ll have ten stories from which to pluck everything from ideas, to inspiration, to actual sentences or even paragraphs.

Honest writing that sounds like you, that’s not contrived to impress, and that reveals actual events from your life is exactly what admissions officers hope to read from applicants’ college essays. I simply cannot imagine a scenario where a student faced with multiple college essay prompts would not be able to draw heavily from honest, detailed, revealing responses to these questions.

Purported recognition

On Friday, my business partner Arun Ponnusamy forwarded all of our counselors a spam email he received from the National Society of High School Scholars. This was the entirety of Arun’s message (if you sense his contempt, it’s for the company sending the email, not for the families who are asking the question):

“At least once a year, a parent will reach out to me about a letter their kid received in the mail about being selected for a very prestigious honor society that just happens to cost a chunk of change. ‘Is it legit?’ No, it’s not. It’s a marketing database under the guise of some academic entity. Don’t let your students join NSHSS. And please don’t ever let them put it on their apps either.”

Considering that in his life before Collegewise, Arun read applications at the University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA, and that he’s now helped hundreds of students through the college admissions process as a counselor, applicants would be smart to follow his advice.

And here’s a collection of my past posts cautioning families against paying for purported recognition.

Negative college admissions influences

Negativity has a tendency to seep unnecessarily into all aspects of the college admissions process. Some parents respond by not just soaking it in, but also spraying it back out to people around them. They contribute to the escalating arms race-like nature of the process by talking about how difficult it is to get into what they think are the best schools, by comparing the accomplishments of their kids to others, and by generally refusing to find or even acknowledge the joy that can be found in this process. And as I shared back in January, science has shown that negativity can spread like secondhand smoke.

If your college admissions process—or any aspect of your work or personal life–is being tainted by someone else’s negativity, here’s an article that gives you some mechanisms to defend yourself. Coincidentally, the expert I’m referencing today and the one in that past January post are husband and wife. I can only imagine how positive their household must be.

In-state tuition at an out-of-state school?

According to data collected by the College Board, the average tuition and fees to attend a public university are roughly 1/3 what they are to attend a private college, as long as that public university is in your home state. As soon as you venture to new state territory, the costs more than double at most public schools.

So it’s common for families to wonder if it’s possible for their student to establish residency at an out-of-state public school, thereby availing themselves of the cheaper cost for in-state residents.

Unfortunately, while establishing in-state residency is not impossible for a student, as this Consumer Reports piece explains in detail, the lengths to which you would need to go to even have a remote shot are pretty drastic.

If college costs are a concern and you want to make sure you have some viable public university options, first, do all the things that make you more admissible to most colleges—take challenging classes, get good grades, spend some (not inordinate) time improving your test scores if necessary, etc. Also, complete the FAFSA and any other financial aid forms your chosen colleges require. Now here are a few tips to help you choose appropriate schools.

1. Consider your in-state options first.
The easiest way to get an advantage is to leverage one that’s already available to you. Depending on your state, most public universities are not only cheaper for their residents, but also easier to gain admission to than they are for students applying from out of state. If your state doesn’t have public schools that appeal to you, remember that applying to a college is not the same as actually attending that school. In this case, you’re giving yourself more potentially viable options. That’s almost always a good thing, especially when you’re concerned about the cost of college.

2. Apply to schools that are most likely to admit you.
This is a great strategy for both private and public colleges. The more likely a college is to admit you, the more likely you are to get a financial aid boost, a practice called “preferential packaging.” Every year, our Collegewise students receive generous and often unsolicited offers of financial aid and scholarships—including from out-of-state public schools—simply because their college lists included some schools where they were strong applicants and were almost certain to be admitted. This is yet another reason why it’s so important to file your FAFSA—many schools will not consider you for preferential packaging without a FAFSA on file.

3. Consider a regional exchange program.
Some public schools enter into agreements with each other that allow students to attend neighboring states’ public schools at a discounted rate. Read to the bottom of the article referenced above and you’ll find links to those programs.

Almost all colleges are more expensive than they used to be. But public universities can be some of the best available bargains in education if you (1) choose your schools carefully, and (2) apply for financial aid.

Life at Collegewise

In March, I announced that we’d hired a full-time filmmaker at Collegewise, Frank Martinez. Yesterday, Frank released his first official finished product with us—a recruiting video entitled Life at Collegewise. Our offices were buzzing with pride and praise for how well he captured just who we are and how much we love the company we’ve built together.

We’re currently hiring in six locations nationwide, and we have one online position for a person who could live virtually anywhere. If you or someone you know is looking for an opportunity to learn and grow as a college counselor, to make a difference for kids and parents, and to do it all with smart, passionate, supportive co-workers who bring their hearts to work every day, I hope you’ll consider joining us. Let’s make a dent in the college admissions universe together. You can find all the information about us and our open positions here.

Taking advantage

Some college admissions advantages are bestowed on select groups. Naturally great test-takers, highly recruited athletes, students with the economic means to avail themselves of test prep and tutoring—while they may have worked to gain (rather than just have been gifted) those advantages, the advantages themselves are just not available to every high school student.

But here’s one potential advantage most seniors can grab. It’s free, it doesn’t discriminate based on your GPA, test scores or résumé, and it doesn’t care where you go to high school or whether or not you intend on applying to highly selective colleges.

You use the summer to start your college application process.

Finalize your college list. Complete your Common Application. Write any essays that your chosen colleges make available. Just get started. I’m not in favor of pushing college prep earlier than necessary. But that application work will need to get done. The only question is whether you do any of it during the summer months or wait until school begins when your days, your schedule, and your plate are already full.

Yes, some students are busier during the summer than others. You may be studying, working, traveling, etc. But chances are that you aren’t as busy or as stressed as you’ll be when the fall schedule of school and classes and activities hits. This fall, you’ll have fewer slots of free time to give to college applications. That’s one of the reasons so many students work on them right up until the deadlines. It’s hard to find the combination of inspiration and relaxation that leads to great college applications when you’re squeezing it in between homework and studying and softball practice.

So give yourself an advantage. Spend just 1-2 hours a week this summer moving through your college application to-dos. Imagine how good you’ll feel, and how much you will have done, if you start your senior year having already logged 10-25 hours of college application work.

You can’t have every advantage. But this one is here for the taking.

Make the choice

I can imagine Seth Godin’s recent recommendation to make two lists being met with eye rolling from many teens, and from many parents, for that matter. But whether or not you take his recommendation to tape one list to your bathroom mirror and to read it every day, the overarching message is a crucial one, especially for families going through the college admissions process—you get to choose what you focus on.

Do you want to focus on all the bad news, all the bad breaks, all your weaknesses, all the places you fell short, and all the ways the system seems rigged against you? That’s what these families did, and it not only did nothing to improve their students’ chances of admission, but also ruined what otherwise could have been a positive experience of finding and applying to college.

Or do you want to focus on the good news, the lucky breaks, the things you’re good at, the teachers you enjoy, the activities that make you happy, and most importantly, on the fact that you live in a country with the most open and accessible system of higher education in the world, billions of dollars available in financial aid and scholarships, and an open invitation to find those that fit you best?

Whether or not you make two lists, you get to make the choice. And there’s nothing preventing you from making this one.

Productive laziness?

Here’s yet another piece, this one from BBC, with some compelling arguments and evidence that taking regular breaks (in between short bursts of focused work) is actually the key to productivity. “Why You Should Manage your Energy, Not your Time” also includes this snippet from study skills and productivity author Cal Newport:

“In order to make the most of our focus and energy, we also need to embrace downtime, or as Newport suggests, ‘be lazy.’ ‘Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body… [idleness] is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done,’ he argues.”

The story is directed towards working professionals, but the argument sticks for students, too. Workaholics actually get less done. Put another way, laziness done right is actually the key to productivity.

Worrying is not a strategy

In the 18 years I’ve been at Collegewise, I can’t recall an instance where a student (or that student’s parents) worried their way to the admissions decision they wanted.

I’ve seen them worry about whether or not they had enough community service hours and how their school’s class ranking system might hurt them.

I’ve seen them worry that they would have earned better grades had they not attended such a rigorous high school. The fact that their test scores don’t break 1400, or that they don’t have a personal connection who can leverage influence, or that their school doesn’t offer AP English for seniors—they worried and wondered how these outcomes would negatively affect them.

Missing the cut for AP Chem, choosing to take a summer job rather than attend summer school, comparing themselves and their achievements to those of their peers–they’ve all led to the application anxiety and worried expressions so many families bring with them to their meetings with counselors.

But in all that time, I’ve never seen that worry make a positive impact. It doesn’t improve their admissions chances. It doesn’t leave them feeling more confident or more in control. It doesn’t motivate them or improve their decision making—in fact, it just leaves them worse off. They’re wound up so tightly with worry that they can’t relax and see their way to focusing on the other parts of the process that they can control.

Treating your college process with the respect that it deserves will get you closer to where you want to go. But worrying? All that does is take your focus off the very things that can change your outcome. It also makes for a miserable ride along the way.

There’s no magic formula to getting into college. But the magic formula for improving any process is to ditch the parts that don’t work, or even worse, do harm. Worrying doesn’t work in college admissions. Worry actually does harm. And that’s why worrying just isn’t a good strategy.