Fit in or stand out?

Too many kids go through high school following the college-prep crowds. Other people sign up for clubs, so they sign up for the same clubs. Other people do more test prep, so they do more test prep. Other people seek leadership positions, or run for class office, or tally up their totals of community service hours because everyone else is doing it. Is it any wonder that so many kids reach the time to complete college applications and then struggle to stand out?

You can fit in or you can stand out. But it’s almost impossible to do both simultaneously.

The best way to stand out is to make different choices than those who are fitting in do.

Learn from what’s worked

One of the benefits of working with talented people you respect is engaging in reasonable debates over complex questions. That happened this week with a group of our managers discussing a potential opportunity for us at Collegewise. There were plenty of smart, plausible arguments on both sides, one of which was that when we tried something not unlike this before, it didn’t go as well as we’d hoped.

But one of our directors, Tara, reminded us: “Stop getting hung up on what didn’t work with your ex. You’ll never be able to move on.”

What great advice.

Sure, you can and probably should try to learn from your failures or mistakes. But those lessons are usually limited to what not to do. The takeaway is inaction, not action. The lessons just prevent you from making the exact same mistake in the exact same situation again. But success, on the other hand, teaches you what to do. You can repeat those actions and the ensuing success. Learning what to do is a lot more useful than learning what not to do.

You can’t become a great quarterback just by learning 100 plays that didn’t work. You won’t make a great dinner just by learning cooking mistakes that ruin meals. And you can’t increase your investment returns simply by avoiding risky investments. Preventing failures is good, but achieving success is even better.

And for that, you’ve got to learn from what’s worked.

High school all over again

I’ve noticed that what sometimes may appear to be parents putting pressure on their kids—to achieve, to excel, to get admitted to famous colleges, etc.—is actually secondhand pressure. It’s pressure parents are feeling themselves that drifts downward to their kids.

All the messaging kids hear directly and indirectly about how important it is to get good grades, score well on standardized tests, thrive in extracurricular activities, etc. exists in parent form, too.

“Getting into college is so stressful and complex. Parents better seek out—and often pay for—all the latest information and advice!”

“A student’s future is too important to leave to chance. Parents better assume the role of ‘manager’ and make all the decisions for their kids.”

“Other parents are making college prep a top priority. You’re letting your kids down if you don’t join the race, too.”

Peer pressure, status competitions, the desire to belong—adults who thought they’d left their teen troubles behind back in high school re-experience them all over again, this time as parents of high school kids.

The good news is that the rule you heard back in high school that was hard to follow still applies—just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Deciding what’s right for your family—and letting your kids decide what’s right for them—is a healthier and more productive approach than succumbing to high school pressure all over again.

There’s a FAFSA app for that

Students applying for financial aid this fall will have the option of using the newly released “FAFSA App,” available on both Apple (iOs) and Android devices. The full version will be available on October 1, 2018 to coincide with the release of the 2019-2020 FAFSA form. That’s mostly good news, but I’d also suggest using the app with appropriate caution.

The ability to fill out the FAFSA on a phone will likely increase the number of families who successfully complete the application, a statistic I hope will be especially notable for under-resourced students. You won’t get the financial aid you need to attend college if you don’t file the FAFSA, so anything that gets more students to apply is worth doing.

But much of how phones are used today is for distracted time-killing–scrolling, “liking” and “disliking,” consuming information while we wait for the bus or the restaurant table or the signal that our doctor is ready to see us—so, we need to make a mental switch when we use our phones for something important. If you complete your FAFSA on your phone, please make the switch. The app doesn’t change the fact that the FAFSA contains over 100 questions, which is even more than appear on your federal tax return. If you submit the form with incorrect information, you can correct it later. But that slows down the process, adds to your stress, and for some students, could make the difference between ultimately submitting an app and just throwing in the FAFSA towel.

Whether you complete the FAFSA on a desktop, a laptop, or the snazzy new app, please give the form the time and even more importantly the attention it deserves. There’s a reason you wouldn’t want to take the SAT in a loud room with the TV on and friends or family asking you questions while you crunched the numbers. Your FAFSA completion deserves the same quiet focus.

For some good insight and tips on how to best use the app, here’s a piece from The National College Access Network and another from the imitable Mark Kantrowitz.

Praise both strengths and effort

I always read the regular emails I signed up to receive from The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley’s initiative driving scientific research into social and emotional well-being. While I’m always willing to hear the college admissions-related advice from someone who’s demonstrated real expertise around a topic, it’s nice to come across recommendations also backed by scientific research, like their latest share, “How to Support Your Kid at School Without Being a Helicopter Parent.” This passage particularly resonated with me:

“In everyday life, encourage your children to believe in their own strengths—whether around their behavior, a sport, creativity, or whatever else you see—by praising and valuing them yourself, particularly when they find school challenging. Perhaps even more importantly, notice and comment on their hard work when you see it. When children hear that solid effort leads to success, rather than getting the message that they should be smart and get good grades, they persist more. This helps them become more resilient when they suffer any setbacks in doing their schoolwork.”

If it were all just a lottery

Students, here’s a three-step process to add a little more joy to—and remove some stress from—your college admissions process.

1. Consider this question: If college admissions were nothing more than a lottery—no application or evaluation at all, just buy a ticket (limit one per applicant) to enter the lottery at any college that interests you, cross your fingers, and hope the luck-of-the-draw swings your way—what would you do differently? Really think about it. If the entire process were nothing more than just a random game of chance, what specific changes would you make in your life?

2. Make a list of the changes you identified in response to the question above.

3. Now, take a good hard look at each item on the list and ask yourself, “What is stopping me from making this change right now?” Answer as specifically as you can.

Sure, for many, you’ll probably have legit answers about what’s stopping you. You couldn’t make long-term resolutions to sleep until noon, refuse to do your homework, or play video games from dawn to dusk all day every day because those changes would probably prevent you from graduating high school, much less attending college.

But I’d wager you’ll have a hard time coming up will real, evidence-based answers preventing you from making every proposed change.

You have more control, more agency, more power to decide what you do and don’t do than you might think.

And even if only one item were legitimately doable, wouldn’t it be worth doing?

They ask for what they need

You don’t have to apply to the University of Virginia to benefit from this advice on their recent blog entry (bold emphasis theirs).

We ask for the things we know we need to make our decisions. If someone is telling you that UVA needs things that aren’t listed in our application instructions, they are mistaken.”

As the entry explains, unless you are applying to an arts program that specifically requests a portfolio, UVA does not want resumes, abstracts, writing portfolios, etc.

Seniors, as you prepare your college applications, don’t fall prey to the impulse to send more stuff. Instead, repeat this mantra for each college: “They ask for the things they know they need to make their decisions.”

Some will ask for more than others. But they’ll all be clear about what they need.

Collegewise advice on resumes for college apps

Resumes are tricky business when applying to college. Do you need one? If so, what should it look like? And if you do draft one, what’s the best way to use it? We’ve got answers to all these questions in an upcoming free webinar:

So Much Room for Activities: Putting Together Your Resume for College
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT
No cost to attendees

You can register or get more information here. I hope you’ll join us.

Celebrate the certainties

If I could pick one practice that most robs the joy from what should be the exciting time of applying to college for a family, it’s conditional celebration. Celebrating if the SAT score breaks a certain (arbitrary) barrier. Celebrating if the semester grades reach a certain numerical GPA. Celebrating if the dream school says yes. Conditional celebration turns the entire process into a competition defined by winning and losing.

The fix? Celebrate the certain.

A student is certain to submit their first college application. Celebrate it.

A student is certain to submit their final college application. Celebrate it.

A student is certain to be admitted to at least one college (provided that student applies to at least one counselor-approved safety school). Celebrate it.

Just because something is certain to occur doesn’t make it any less deserving of a celebration. If it did, nobody would celebrate birthdays, Thanksgiving, or the arrival of summer break.

In some communities of students without the right resources and support, those outcomes may not be so certain. What a great reminder for everyone that successfully preparing for, applying to, and getting into any college is worthy of celebration, no matter what your dream school says.

Celebrating certainties along the path to college isn’t arbitrarily injecting faux merriment into the process. It’s acknowledging that a teenager is getting closer to a life-impacting four years along the path to adulthood, an outcome they’ve worked to earn.

High stakes, judgment, and uncertainty don’t exactly make for happy times. It’s no wonder so many families look back on the admissions process as one filled with anxiety and dread. The fastest way to turn those feelings around is to identify the certain but still important eventualities for each student and to inject some well-deserved celebration.

Reject the conditional, embrace the certain, and let your celebrations begin.

How to Raise an Adult: fall book tour

I’ve referred to few experts more frequently in the last 18 months than I have Julie-Lythcott Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult. She recently launched a fall book tour, and if you’re interested, here’s the full schedule of dates and locations. Note that some dates are dedicated to her other book, Real American, which is about an entirely different topic (I have heard wonderful things about that book, too, but have not read it).

If she isn’t speaking near you and you’d like to get better acquainted with her message, I highly recommend How to Raise an Adult and her popular TED Talk.