Greeting vs. status reporting

Parents, imagine you’ve just gotten home after a long, trying day of work. You can’t wait to shed the stress of the day and enjoy the comparative relaxation of your home and family.

Now your son or daughter walks into the room and starts hitting you with questions, like:

Did you hear back from your boss about whether you’re getting that promotion?

I heard Suzanne made partner. Does she have a better track record than you do?

Did anyone else get bonuses? If so, why haven’t you gotten one?

When will you know the results of that certification test? If you didn’t do well, how soon can you retake it?

Will the remodel be coming in under budget? If not, I’ll schedule a meeting with the builders and try to get things back on track for you.

Are you on schedule to present that report this week?

Would you feel like your son or daughter was taking an active interest in your work? Would you find their questions supportive and encouraging?

Or would you feel like they were exacerbating existing stress, that they were asking you to replay a day that had already played out, that the entire line of questioning was simply inviting into your home the very parts of work that you most want to leave back at work until tomorrow?

And even more importantly, would you prefer they instead just expressed how genuinely happy they were to see you?

If your end-of-the-day conversations with your teen tend to go poorly (or go nowhere), try offering a greeting instead of requesting a status report.

[Not one hour after posting this, someone sent me this article advocating the following for parents upon seeing their kids after school: “When you’re reunited at the end of the day, look at them and say the following: ‘Hey, I’m so happy to see you.’ Then shut up.”]

Do you get what you pay for?

Senior families, as you weigh the costs of your college options, here’s a benchmark to avoid: “You get what you pay for.” That might be true when you’re choosing a television, a new roof, or a seat on an airplane. But it just doesn’t hold up when you’re choosing a college.

Almost every purported benefit of any college is only worth the degree to which a student avails themselves of that benefit.

Small classes can lead to a lot of personal attention and interaction with professors, but only if the student wants and takes advantage of that opportunity.

Six Nobel Prize-winning professors on campus? Great. How do you plan to make that benefit a benefit to you?

Great snowboarding, a top engineering program, a wide range of study abroad options, deep pre-med advising, a socially conscious student body, a brand new gym on campus, a city with virtually unlimited internship opportunities, etc.—each is like an item on a menu. It’s available for you to order and enjoy, but none are served up and force-fed to you. Choose the school that offers an appealing menu, then order and enjoy accordingly.

It’s up to each student and parent to decide together if the offerings at any college justify the price. Many students who attend expensive schools rave about the experiences. But they don’t do so more effusively than those who attend the more moderately priced options. College is an investment that should be carefully considered. But price doesn’t perfectly correlate to quality for good reason—you get to drive the value of your own returns.

With college, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for. You get what you make of what you pay for.

What, who, and why?

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady closes the final scene in his new documentary, Tom vs. Time, by posing three questions:

“What are we doing this for? Who are we doing this for? Why are we doing this?”

He goes on to say,

“You got to have the answers to those questions, and they have to be with a lot of conviction. When you lose your conviction, then you probably should be doing something else.”

While the questions left some Pats fans nervous that Tom might be losing his previous unrelenting commitment to football, it’s also possible that he was reaffirming his passion by reminding himself of the what, who, and why.

High school students, as you work hard to get into college, as you take the AP classes and prepare for the standardized tests and commit yourself to your various activities, it might be worth asking yourself those questions occasionally.

What are you doing this for? Are you doing it so you can get into a prestigious college? Are you doing it so you can find a place to pursue your love of history or journalism or mathematics? Are you doing it because you see college as a place where you can learn, grow, and discover your talents?

Who are you doing this for? Are you doing it for yourself because you want to drive your future and your education? Are you doing it for your family because they’ve sacrificed to give you this opportunity? Are you doing it out of a sense of competition with your classmates?

Why are you doing this? Is attending meetings for that club making you happy? Is it necessary to prep for the ACT a third time in the hopes of eking out another point or two? Are you losing sleep and giving up things that make you happy so that you can keep taking AP-everything?

I’m not suggesting that you should consider abandoning your college goals altogether. But I’ve found that too many high school students just start the race towards college without ever considering their reasons for running. Getting into college does not require the kind of fanatical devotion to one craft that being a professional athlete demands. But you should find a sense of meaning and purpose in what you’re doing. And one of the best ways to reaffirm, refuel, and even refocus your conviction is to occasionally ask yourself the what, who, and why.

Which financial aid award is best?

Not all financial aid awards—or all financial aid award letters—are created equal. Financial aid can come in several forms, from free money that doesn’t need to be paid back, to loans, to work study programs. There’s no standardized way to present the award elements to families, and many colleges highlight the total amount of the aid package but make the families decipher just how much of that award, if any, is tantamount to a discount off the sticker price of the college.

To help you compare one school’s financial aid package with another, check out the financial aid comparison tool on the College Board’s website. You enter the figures, then it does the math and tells you what each school will actually cost to attend.

No stopping you

As college decisions roll in this month, many students are experiencing a feeling they’ve never experienced before to a significant degree—failure. Getting a denial from your dream college is actually not a failure at all. You worked hard and should be commended for your efforts. But it can certainly feel like failure when all your effort and desire to attend just didn’t seem to pan out.

This is one of those times when advice you get today will actually be a lot more helpful in the future, but here it is. You will actually be better for this.

The high school universe of college preparation sets up a vision for teens where perfection, at least on paper, is actually attainable. Some students will complete the high school years having earned perfect grades, perfect test scores, and a list of accolades that demonstrates there really was no room for improvement.

But if even those seemingly perfect students decide to maintain their drive to be successful, they’ll eventually learn that perfection is not possible, and that failure is inevitable. That’s reality, not pessimism. Read the biography of just about any successful person in any field and it will include some failure along the way. And part of what makes someone successful is their ability to learn, regroup, and bounce back.

I know it’s disappointing not to get the admissions news you were hoping for. Nobody expects you to shake it off overnight (though if you can, please do!). But don’t beat yourself up. Don’t do an autopsy of your admissions process in an effort to discover what went wrong. Don’t second guess your essay topic or scold yourself for that B- in bio or regret that you didn’t sit for the SAT a fourth time. None of those things take you toward a productive outcome. And they just make you feel worse.

Instead, remind yourself how many of your college goals can be accomplished at those schools that said yes. Hold your head high, secure that your hard work will pay off no matter where you go. And most importantly, remember that experiencing this disappointment means that you’re part of a special group who sets and pursues goals even without the guarantee that you’ll reach them. That’s the mark of a successful person. And so is a productive reaction to this news.

Everyone who aims high occasionally falls short. Everyone also needs to learn how to respond productively when things don’t go as planned. If you receive disappointing news this month, consider it your crash course. That level of disappointment was going to happen for the first time at some point—you just got your first out of the way. Use it as your opportunity to learn, regroup, and bounce back. Wherever you go to college, if you can get those skills down, there will be no stopping you.

It’s not you, it’s me

Whether you’re a student who needs help from a teacher, a counselor who’s navigating a conversation that’s more difficult than you’d anticipated, or a parent who’s facing conflict in your work or organization, start with, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

I must not be understanding this right.

I’m not doing a good job explaining this.

I should have told you more about this sooner.

Then ask for help.

Can you help me see what I’m missing?

How can I do a better job?

What information would be helpful for you to have before we go any further?

Now, you’ve changed the interaction. Instead of putting the other party on the defensive, you’re now inviting them to work towards a mutual resolution. And working together is easier than competing to win.

You might not, in fact, be at fault. But if you start by assuming that you are, it makes it easier for the other party to see that it just might be them.

The role of role-players

Collegewise students will often ask some version of the question, “But what if I’m not the best?

With so much measurement and comparison that’s become part of the college admissions process, it’s natural for students to look at every learning or activity pile and assume not only that whoever resides atop it must be the admissions shoo-in, but also that those further down the list have somehow come up short.

The reality? Not every student can be at the top of the class. Not everyone will be named the MVP, first chair violinist, or perennial debate tournament champion. Not everyone can be student body president or team captain or editor of the yearbook. Yes, colleges appreciate the work ethic and passion necessary to achieve. But honors, awards, and other accolades are just one way to show those traits. Another way is to be the role player that helps those groups succeed.

If you’ve often felt dejected about your admissions chances because your hard work doesn’t translate into the brag-worthy lines on a college application, I hope you’ll listen to “The Team of Humble Stars,” an episode of University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant’s podcast. His discussion of the role of, well, role-players will give you some encouraging insights that your contributions can be just as valuable when they’re part of a larger group’s success as they can when driving your individual achievement.

Every group needs role players. And they have the same opportunities to stand out if they play those roles well.


What will you have to show?

I received an unsolicited email from a graphic designer today. It had a bullet-pointed list of services he offers, from logo designs, to business cards, to brochures, websites and social media pages. It closed with an invitation to email him back if I’d like to get started.

An email like that is easy to delete, which is exactly what I did.

Why would a graphic designer rely on text alone to sell his services? He’s just telling me what he can do. Why not show me?

Even better than asking me to click over to your portfolio, which I have no emotional connection to, why not send me three mock-ups of what you would do if we worked together?

Here’s what I’d make your homepage look like.

Here’s the business card I’d create.

And here’s what I’d do with your logo to make it more appealing and memorable.

Had he done that, I could have seen the change he’d make. And if I liked what I saw, he’d have given me a problem. I now have to decide to either satisfy that interest by responding, or ignoring what’s enticing and choosing to stay with the status quo. Creating a problem like that for a potential customer—one where they can see the benefit and have to decide whether to engage or ignore it, is a good sales strategy.

The “show, don’t tell” method is an effective one for college applicants, too. Instead of  using the application to tell the reader about the important lessons you’ve learned and the appealing qualities you’ve displayed in high school, show them how those lessons and qualities have impacted, improved, or otherwise changed the people, projects, and organizations you’ve chosen to spend time with. You don’t need extra, unsolicited materials to do it. Just tell stories and be specific. That’s how you move from telling to showing within a college application.

If you’re an underclassman whose college applications are (thankfully) still in front of you, don’t worry about how you’ll pitch, package, or otherwise market yourself to schools. You are not a widget in need of a promotional strategy. You are a complex human being whose contributions can be compelling enough if you just have something to show.

“Will this look good to colleges?” is the wrong question to ask. Instead, start asking yourself, “What will I have to show for this?”

The more you have to show for it, the stronger applicant you’ll be.

Celebrate who they are today

When a student shows a passion for the arts—acting, photography, painting, etc.—it’s natural for some parents to worry about that interest’s future practicality. Should you encourage their pottery or painting or songwriting? Or should you push them towards interests where the path to gainful employment is both more certain and more direct?

It’s not an unreasonable concern (as my dad says, “There’s a difference between having a hobby and having a job”), or one with an obvious answer.

I liked Madeline Levine’s advice shared in this 90-second video about how to parent artistic kids. She uses the analogy of a river and a rock. A kid who is truly creative is like a river. You can be a rock who tries to halt that flow if you want to be, but they can’t shut off who they are—they’ll just go around you. So the only thing you stand to accomplish by trying to stop that flow is damaging your own relationship with your child.

But there’s an important distinction, one that I’m guessing Levine herself would have made had the video been longer. Just because a high school student shows a creative passion doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll one day commit to making a career out of it. Very few kids—creative or not—seek careers at 26 in the exact areas that made them tick when they were 16. That creativity may be there to stay, but creativity can be expressed in as many avenues as it can mediums.

Maybe your student will grow up and use those acting chops to deliver polished sales presentations? Maybe they’ll use those photography skills to capture the best shots of your family holidays together? Maybe the art class they teach one day will be the most popular course on campus?

So parents, if your student expresses a creative passion, celebrate it. Be happy for them that they’ve found something they enjoy, something safe and productive that lights them up. Don’t rush ten steps (and ten years) ahead and evaluate their creative career potential.

Yes, you might have to have some of those conversations if that creative interest starts to drive their college selection. But even those choices don’t necessarily bind them to a future career choice.

Wait and see who they become tomorrow, and just celebrate who they are today.

Do they share the outcome?

College admissions advice can come at you from all sides when you’re going through the process. From fellow students and parents to self-professed experts (some legitimate, some dubious), it can be difficult to distinguish who you should listen to and who you should ignore.

Whether the admissions-related advice comes from a paid professional, a stranger you met at a dinner party, or someone in between, vet it by asking two questions:

1. Will they benefit from your following the advice, regardless of the outcome?

2. Will they share the responsibility for the outcome if the advice proves ineffective?

Those two questions alone may not be sufficient. But they’ll help you eliminate those folks who have everything to gain, and those who have nothing to lose.

The best advice comes from those who share the outcome with you.