For counselors: The end of the safety school?

High school and private counselors are likely familiar with this scenario. You have seniors who don’t want to discuss, apply to, or even remotely entertain the idea of safety schools. They believe that a school where they’re virtually guaranteed admission inherently makes that school less worthy. And they want to spend their time, money, and application energy pursuing more selective schools, many of which are those where they stand the least likely chance of being admitted.

If you’re facing any version of that challenge with any of your seniors, high school counseling thought-leader Patrick O’Connor comes through again with his timely and helpful advice, this time with his post “The End of the Safety School.”

What’s your superpower?

The fictional heroes of my youth were “superheroes,” each with an accompanying superpower, like flying, traveling at the speed of light, shrinking down to an infinitesimal size, etc. A few of them seemed to be able to do just about anything (Superman really did have it all), but most had one (super) power they could wield that helped make the group collectively unstoppable.

If you want to stand out, it’s worth considering what your own superpower might be.

If you can fly or turn invisible, your college essay pretty much writes itself. But for the ordinary mortals like the rest of us, your superpower might be that you can remain calm when everyone else is overreacting to a stressful situation. Maybe you know how to stand up in front of a room and get people to listen to you. Maybe you know how to unstick a project and bring it to completion when nobody else can seem to make progress.

We’ve all got them. Once you find your superpower, make sure you put it to use.

Not like all the others

One of my college friends is a firefighter who was recently recruited by his chief to help craft a mission statement for the department. He went through many drafts, each of which included making the chief’s suggested changes and additions. Then he sent it to me for editing to make sure that it read well.

I told him the truth. It reads fine if you want it to read like every other mission statement.

Mission statements, like so many pieces of writing that will be shared publicly, tend to all sound the same. They’re full of jargon like “We will aspire to achieve excellence in all endeavors, to communicate with transparency, and to provide our customers with the highest standards of service.”

Sure, those words technically mean something. But will they move anyone? Will a single person act or think differently about the organization after reading them? Or will they just be words that hang on a wall and allow the organization to say, “We have a mission statement”?

I wrote him back with some suggested edits that maintained the standard, formal tone it was clear his chief was comfortable with. But I also gave him a complete revision I titled, “Kevin’s Version the Chief Will Never Approve.”

Here are three samples of the revisions:

Their version:

Responsiveness
We respond in a safe and rapid manner to all emergency calls for service. Additionally, we are committed to providing timely and accurate information and resources in all matters affecting our stakeholders.

My rewrite:

Responsiveness
We answer every call to serve—emergency or otherwise—as quickly and safely as possible.

Their version:

Duty
We choose service over self.  We are stewards of public trust and champion what is best for our community.

My Rewrite:

Duty
Community, department, self. In that order.

Their version:

Integrity
We are accountable for our actions, celebrate our successes, and look to our failures as opportunities for growth. We are committed to the standards of the organization, always working to “do the right thing.” 

My rewrite:

Integrity
We take responsibility for our actions and our results. We will do the right thing, not the easy thing.

I know the chief will never go for my version, but I took a swing anyway. Sometimes people assume that a piece of writing must sound the same as all the others. It doesn’t, especially if you want it to work.

You can improve almost any piece of writing, from an email, to a mission statement, to a college essay, by:

  • Getting right to the point.
  • Writing as if you were speaking to another person.
  • Removing unnecessary words.

Do those things, and your writing won’t sound like all the others.

Here’s a past post profiling my favorite book on how to improve your writing.

Make others notice

Students, if you only do your best work when you like the teacher, or your parents push you, or the boss is watching, that’s giving other people an awful lot of power over your life. And worst of all, you’re letting them control when you’re at your best.

If you want to stand out, earn more credit, get more positive attention, and improve your chances of getting into college, don’t wait for others to get you to work. Do work that will make others take notice.

The original helicopter parent?

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis just might have been the original helicopter parent. As originally reported in Page Six and shared in this New York Post article, it turns out Jackie “…filled out son John F. Kennedy Jr.’s application to Brown University back in 1978 — and throughout his four years at the Ivy League school, she worked diligently to ensure he didn’t flunk any of his classes, going so far as to correspond with his professors.”

The article goes on to share examples of more current, less famous, and I believe just as inappropriate helicopter behavior of some of today’s parents of college kids, some of whom go as far as to impersonate their children when calling or emailing school officials.

I hope parents who read that article avoid the same kind of behavior rather than find comfort in a connection to the iconic first lady.

How to get quiet teens to open up

While Claire Lew’s “11 ways to get feedback from your most introverted employee” is a great read for managers, I think virtually every one of those tips could work well for counselors and parents looking to help more reserved teens open up about school, life, college, etc. For parents, though, I’d recommend ignoring #8: “Bring a notebook” (no need to formalize the talk quite so much when it’s in the family).

Short answer essay help is here

College essays don’t just come in the form of the longer 600-word personal statements. Many colleges’ applications also serve up prompts requiring as few as 150-300 words on topics like why you’ve chosen to apply to that college, what you learned from a failure or mistake, and which activity has had the most meaning for you. When handled well, these shorter essays give applicants multiple opportunities to share more about themselves in ways that the rest of the application—and the longer essay—have not yet revealed.

If you’re working through or about to start writing your short answer essays, we’ve still got some spaces in tonight’s webinar:

The Art of the Short Answer 
How to write effective responses to those short answer prompts on applications
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (PDT)

Our Collegewise presenters, Nandita and Tom, read thousands of applications at Stanford and Colorado College respectively. They’re both excellent teachers, and they’ll not only help you understand the intent behind these short answer questions, but also help you find and tell your best stories. If you can’t attend live, we’ll be sharing the recording for two weeks following the webinar, but only with those who register. I hope you can join us.

Monday morning Q&A: Community service and college admissions

Nicole asks:

“How much weight do schools place on service trips? It seems as if they are reaching an over-saturation point, that I might call ‘excessive volunteering.’ Do colleges see through most of these ‘checkbox’ items on a resume or application?”

Good question, Nicole. This is a tricky subject because a strong argument can be made that volunteering anywhere for any amount of time is a good thing regardless of any purported college admissions impact. But your specific question is about the “weight” schools place on these commitments, so let me focus on that part here.

First, you’re right. Many students are approaching community service hours like checking a box–as if it were a prerequisite for admission. Some high schools even require a minimum number of completed service hours to graduate. But most colleges don’t expect that every successful applicant will have worked at a blood drive or served soup at a homeless shelter. There’s no penalty imposed on students who choose to do other things. What colleges look for is evidence that a student has made both a commitment and an impact doing things he or she cares about. That might be volunteering at a non-profit, teaching illiterate adults to read, or training guide dogs for the blind. But it could also be working at Burger King, playing softball, taking photos for the yearbook or playing the bassoon. Impact can take many forms (more on that here).

So, a student who’s spending the bare minimum time and effort just to rack up some community service hours to list on their application could reasonably consider rededicating that time someplace else without any negative admissions ramifications. If your heart’s not in it, you’re not really giving—and the people you’re serving aren’t really getting—your best self in the name of the cause.

The one potential exception to this rule is if you’re applying to a school whose mission includes serving others. For example, some religiously affiliated colleges expect that an applicant will have dedicated time to her church and embraced the tenet of service. A student who’s chosen to spend the majority of her time in church-related activities that have included serving the less fortunate will likely have an admissions advantage over the student who spent that same time running track and taking art classes. The former student is more likely to accept an offer of admission and to thrive on campus because she’s already demonstrated that she’s aligned with the mission. When in doubt, read your college’s website carefully, as these schools won’t hide what they stand for.

And no matter where you apply, never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are “enough.” That’s like fingernails on the chalkboard to that audience.

Thanks for your question, Nicole. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Teacher/student responsibilities

Students, who’s responsible for making sure that you learn the material in each of your classes?

I’d argue it’s you, not your teacher.

It’s your teacher’s job to make it clear what’s expected from students. It’s your teacher’s job to provide the necessary instruction and resources like materials, opportunities to answer questions, and even extra help if necessary. It’s your teacher’s job to fairly evaluate your performance in the class based on the metrics that have been made clear.

But learning takes two willing parties. And just like parents, bosses, and other figures of authority can’t physically force you to do anything well or at all, your teacher can’t will you to be an engaged student who genuinely wants to learn.

“I didn’t do well in that class because I didn’t like the teacher” is a student who’s abdicating their responsibility.

“My teacher wasn’t my favorite, but I still found a way to learn in her class” is a student who’s embracing their responsibly.

Counselors: before you deliver your next workshop

One way high school counselors can share admissions information and advice with their community of students, parents, and faculty is to hold a workshop or other group gathering. To make these meetings as valuable as possible for you and for your attendees, consider asking three questions ahead of time.

1. What change are you hoping to make?
There’s no need to bring everyone together just to share information—send an email, write a blog, post the information on your website, etc. and you’ve just saved a lot of time for everyone. When you put people in the room, you’re trying to get them to change in some way. You want them to start filling out applications, to follow the new letter of rec protocol, to write better essays or get over their fear of the FAFSA or think more about college fit than prestige. Identifying ahead of time the change you want to make helps you structure the talk to actually make that change happen. And you need to know where you want your audience to go before you start telling them how and why they should move.

2. How will you know if it worked?
You’re spending time creating this talk, and your audience is spending time to come listen. How will you know if it worked? What signs will you look for as evidence that your talk got the job done? Will you hear from the English teachers that the first drafts of the college essays had improved? Will you have fewer students arriving at your offices three days before holiday break to ask for college admissions advice? Will you increase the number of first-generation students in your senior class who attend college next year? Whether the change you were seeking to make was big or small, identify ahead of time how you’ll decide whether or not your talk actually drove the change you wanted.

3. What will happen if the change does—or does not—take place?
Will there be a reward for attendees who successfully make the change? Will there be a punishment for those who do not? (Hint: potential rewards work better than potential punishments do.) You can’t force people to learn or to do something. They need to want to make the change, and that journey has more gravity when there are consequences attached. So, will students who follow your letter of rec guidelines be given priority? Will you be imposing a strict deadline by which you will no longer be available to answer application-related questions? Will students who’ve submitted all their applications enjoy a stress-free holiday break? Whatever the consequence of making or not making the change, make it clear to the attendees. You need them to do more than just sit through the presentation. You want them enrolled in this journey. And helping them see the benefits or disadvantages based on whether or not they follow your lead will make people more likely to act.