Great things take time to make

Between the day I left for college and the day I arrived home for my December holiday break, I had almost no communication with anyone I’d gone to high school with. Unless we were willing to place an expensive long-distance phone call or write a good old-fashioned letter, we all had to wait until December to reconvene in our hometown and swap college stories. Until that time, each of our experiences was our own. The only frame of comparison was our fellow students on our respective campuses, not our friends spread out at colleges across the country.

Times are different for today’s college freshmen. With email, text, and social media, everyone is experiencing college together—virtually. It’s a great way to see what your old friends are up to, and even to stay in closer touch with those people you’d rather have more meaningful exchanges with than just the occasional comment on a posted photo. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to make you feel terrible about your own college experience.

When you scroll through social media feeds of nothing but positive reports and renderings from college campuses, yet you’ve got a roommate you don’t connect with, or classes that haven’t inspired you yet, or a campus social scene where you’ve yet to find your place, you might feel like you’re doing college wrong while everyone else is doing it right. It’s even worse if you start second-guessing your choice of where to spend these next four years.

New college freshmen, please remember two things. First, much of what you see and read about your friends’ experiences at college is just advertising. Many are posting the carefully selected share-worthy moments that don’t necessarily reflect the entirety of their experience. Second, while some people experience college bliss from the moment they move into their dorm, many more do not.

Looking back, was your first week or month or even semester of high school representative of the entire four-year experience? Probably not. And your earliest college experiences won’t be, either. A great college experience is the sum of four years that will include lots of ups and downs, successes and failures, good fortune and tough breaks. Believe it or not, all of those things contribute to what makes college such a learning, growing, and even flat-out-fun period of your life. In fact, that’s not just college, that’s life. And you deserve to reap all the great rewards and memories of it without the impression that you’re the only one for whom the ride is occasionally bumpy.

So many of today’s college freshmen have spent the last four years or more working towards and dreaming about what’s been promised to be the best, most fulfilling, most transformative experience of their lives. For most of you, it will be just that when you look back on it. But please don’t despair if it doesn’t seem to be happening for you on week one, semester one, or in some cases even year one. Relieve yourself of the pressure of expecting that every day should be your best day. Instead, focus on things you can control—your effort, your initiative, your willingness to treat every day of college as an opportunity to go out and make something of it as opposed to sitting back and waiting for that something to come to you.

Spend enough days doing those things and it will start to add up. Over time, you’ll have plenty to love—and share—about college.

College will be great. But great things take time to make.

Make “Why this college?” about you

Of all the questions on college applications, any version of “Why are you interested in attending this college?” could well be the one students struggle with most. It’s easy if you’re the rare student who’s interested in a major or program that very few other colleges offer. But most students don’t have their interest narrowed down that specifically. And that’s why so many applicants end up either expressing vague generalities like “You have a great reputation, top professors, and a beautiful campus,” or composing a list of specific features that they obviously just looked up on the college’s website, like “You have an 11-1 student-faculty ratio.” Neither of those approaches gets you closer to admission.

The best answers to this type of question have a lot more to do with you than they do with the college, and here’s why. The colleges are asking not just because they want to know if you’re a good fit. Even more importantly, they also want to know how likely you’d be to accept an offer of admission if one were extended to you.

Let me propose a scenario to better explain this to students who read this blog.

Imagine you received five invitations to the prom, each from someone you’d genuinely like to go with. You can only say yes to one, but here’s the catch—you’re not the only person each is asking. You have no real way of knowing who genuinely wants to go with you and who’s just playing the odds. You could be the first choice, the backup, or somewhere in-between.

In case this admittedly stretched analogy is failing, let me be clear—they’re the college applicants, you’re the college.

One way to get a sense of who would be most likely to take you up on your acceptance might be to ask, “Tell me more about why you’d like to go to the prom with me.”

Which of these two responses makes you feel more confident that they’d say yes to you if you said yes to them?

You have a reputation as a high-achieving student. You have a good GPA, you’ve participated in lots of activities, and you take four AP classes. You also were named all-league in both tennis and basketball, you’ve won a lot of department awards at school, and I heard that you’ve already started to win some college scholarship money. You have a part-time job, so I think you’ll be able to help pay for prom expenses. Finally, you eat salads at lunch a lot, which is a lot healthier than many other lunch options.

You might be flattered. It’s nice to hear someone say positive things about you. But this person just told you a lot about something you already knew well—yourself. And you’ve still got no sense why or if they really want to go to the prom with you.

Contrast that with this response:

I’m not a social risk-taker. I don’t go to the crazy parties, so I’m not looking to sneak booze into the prom or do anything else that so many other people are talking about doing. I just want to go with someone I like, dance, take some pictures, and have a fun night with our mutual friends that we can look back on and smile about. It’s our prom, and it’s a big deal. I think it can be a lot of fun without doing something that will get us in trouble three weeks before we graduate. I don’t know you well, but we’ve talked enough that I think you’re someone who might want the same thing. So if you want to go with me, I’d love to take you. I think we’d make a great prom night couple.

See the difference? Whether or not that description appeals to you is up to you. But you know where this person stands. You know a little more about them and why they think you’re a good prom match. And most importantly, their response gives you a sense that they might welcome a yes from you.

When you answer a “Why this college?” question, it’s fine to describe aspects of that college that appeal to you. And if you’ve found something specific—a major, a program, a professor, etc. that matches something you’re genuinely looking for in a college, say so! They’re asking, after all.

But remember that admissions officers don’t need you to tell them about the place they work. They want you to tell them about you, what you are looking for in a college, and why you both could be a good fit together.

There are times when it’s OK to make something about you. Answering a “Why this college?” question is one of those times.

What would you do?

After watching Adam Grant’s 2-minute video, “How to Raise Resilient Kids,” I wanted to go back and add one of his tips to my list of examples parents can set for kids. The next time you’re facing one of those challenges where there is no clear right answer, ask your kids, “What would you do?”

Maybe you’re nervous about a presentation or project at work, or you’re having a conflict with your father-in-law, or you’re trying to decide whether to save more money or take a vacation. Any one of those is a teaching and learning moment. So invite your kids to share their advice.

As Grant points out, it’s great training for your kids to think through these situations and imagine how they would handle them. But even more importantly, it sends the message that you’re willing to seek out advice when you need it, that even Mom or Dad doesn’t always know the right answer, and that you respect their take enough to ask for it.

Best case scenario, you get some good advice. Even if you don’t, you’ll be training your kids with the kind of situations they’ll face regularly as they get older. And it really is as simple as asking, “What would you do?”

Innovating and honoring

I still remember one of the questions I was asked during my interview for a position as a summer orientation program coordinator during my senior year of college.

What do you think will be the most challenging part of being an orientation coordinator?

I was ready for this one. It was something I’d thought about a lot and was hoping I’d get the chance to talk about.

The short version of my answer: Deciding which parts of the program we should change to look for newer, better ways of doing things, and which parts we should keep the same.

That program had been thriving for nearly 20 years, with a rich history and a long line of traditions that meant something to people. Plenty of smart, successful coordinators had come before. Clearly, they’d done a lot right. And it felt pretty arrogant to suggest that any part of the program needed a complete overhaul.

But I also knew promising only to repeat everything, unchanged and unimproved, was no way to get any job worth having. The hiring committee didn’t just want the program to duplicate itself year after year. They wanted progress– new and better ways to serve the program’s mission of helping incoming students feel welcome and prepared for college.

I genuinely believed that striking that balance of honoring the old and embracing the new would be challenging, but that the right people for the job would embrace that opportunity. I can’t say for sure whether or not that was the answer they were looking for, but I did get the job. And my fellow coordinators and I spent the next nine months deciding where to innovate with what would be new and honoring what was already old.

Students, teachers, and counselors, as you head back to school and assume your positions in offices, classrooms, teams, clubs, organizations, and other constituencies, where will you innovate to find the new, and what will you keep unchanged by honoring the old?

There’s no easy, right answer to this. But here’s a good place to start. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is not honoring the old and is often an insufficient reason to stay the same. Unless it’s followed by something compelling like…

…and everyone has been thrilled with the results
….and we’ve yet to find something that promises to work that well
…and it’s at the core of who we are and what we stand for
…and the stakes are just too high to experiment with something unproven

…then it might be time to try some innovating.

How to train your parents to step back

I write often here about how important it is for parents to step back. Kids who rely on their parents to direct, manage, and fix their lives for them are less successful getting into college and less prepared once they get there.

But the truth is that there’s a lot teenagers can do to earn that independence rather than just lament its absence. Here are five suggestions.

1. Start doing things you’ve always been asked to do.
Asking for independence isn’t nearly as effective as actually demonstrating it. And the best way to start is to do things your parents have always had to ask you to do, like making your bed, cleaning your room, taking out the trash, etc. Tasks like these are the low-hanging fruit of independence. You don’t need permission. You don’t have to earn the right. Just start (and don’t stop). Every teen wants to stay out later or have access to the family car or spend unsupervised time with their friends. But it’s hard to entrust a teenager with a car and late curfew if you can’t be trusted to make your bed without being asked. Assuming responsibility for the things you’ve always had to be asked to do will demonstrate a real maturity and independence that you and your parents can build on.

2. Look for opportunities where failure would be recoverable.
Most parents’ reluctance to step back comes from their fear of what will happen if things go badly. If the first independence you seek is to manage your entire college application process with no parental oversight, failure might not be recoverable (missing a deadline could mean that a college you loved is now completely off the table). Instead, start with things where you could recover from the worst case scenario. Meeting with your counselor to discuss your course planning, keeping track of your schedule for your part-time job, asking your calculus teacher for some extra help before the next exam—if those things don’t go well, there will be little harm done and your parents could even step in if you needed them to. Think of it like training for a marathon or investing money—you have to build up slowly before you can safely go big.

3. Seek advice along with permission.
Many students assert their need for independence along with a steadfast refusal to listen to any advice. But the problem with that approach is that it puts you and your parents on opposite sides of the table. And as ready as you may be to do more on your own, your parents know more about life than you do. So instead, ask for their advice along with their permission. There’s a big difference between “Can I go with my friends to look at colleges this weekend?” and “I want to look at colleges this weekend with my friends. What do you think I should do while I’m there to get the most out of it?” See the difference? The former is pushing them out. The latter is inviting them in.

4. Share credit, own blame.
As you direct more of your own life, some things will work out as you’d hoped, and some will not. How you respond to each will affect whether or not you’ll get more chances to stretch in the future. So here’s a tip—give your parents credit when things go well, but own all the blame yourself when they don’t.

“My counselor agreed to let me do an independent study, just like we talked about. Thanks for your advice. It really helped.”

“I thought I could juggle both activities at the same time, but I was wrong. I’ll make sure not to take on more than I can handle again.”

No demand for acknowledgement when it goes right, and no excuses for when it goes wrong. Just a willingness to share the good and to own the bad. And both responses earn you more opportunities in the future.

5. Respect the process.
The transfer of responsibility from parent to student isn’t meant to happen overnight. It’s a process. And like any process that a) involves human beings and b) is worth doing, it takes time, patience, and an acknowledgment that if it were easy, everyone would do it perfectly. So expect that it will take some time. You and your parents may both make mistakes along the way—remember that they’re more likely to forgive yours if you’re willing to do the same for them. And most importantly, care more about progress than you do about getting what you want when you want it. Showing that you can move maturely and productively through the ups and downs doesn’t just show respect for the process. It also shows that you’re behaving like the adult who’s ready for the very independence you’re seeking.

The best antidote to worry

Worry ruins college admission for too many families. All the uncertainty about what might happen with one upcoming grade, test, or admissions decision can leave some students and parents in a constant state of anxiety, almost all of which will seem overblown in retrospect when that student eventually moves into a dorm and becomes a college freshman.

Research out of the University of Chicago shows that the best way to stop worrying about what might happen tomorrow is to be grateful for what you have today. Your health, your family, your friends, your life—all of these things are more important than your SAT score or whether Northwestern says yes. If that feels true in theory but difficult to embrace in practice because you’re in the middle of this potentially stressful time, here’s an article that shares not just the research, but also a simple exercise to help you embrace gratitude as your worry antidote.

Stretch and learn

Our family’s go-to babysitter is headed to college next week, so we’re in the market for a replacement. When my wife saw a post on a parent list-serve pitching the experienced babysitting services of an incoming freshman at a local high school, she called the number listed. Turns out that number wasn’t the student’s—it was his mother’s, who also made it clear in the first two minutes that she would be doing all the vetting during this exchange.

He’s only available on these particular days and times. Can you accommodate that?

How old are your kids? He doesn’t take care of kids younger than two.

What’s the latest time you would need him to stay? I don’t like him to be out past nine.

I don’t think any of those are unreasonable positions to take. This is a 14-year-old kid, not a professional nanny. There’s nothing wrong with a 14-year-old who doesn’t even drive yet being unavailable during certain hours, preferring to work with kids of a certain age, or needing to be home by a certain time.

But is there any reason why he couldn’t speak for himself? He presumably knows his schedule. He knows the age range of the kids he feels comfortable caring for. He knows what time his parents would like him to come home. He’s got all the information necessary to take it from there.

He could have fielded that phone call. He could have answered questions and maybe thought of a few of his own to ask. He could have represented himself and shown his potential part-time employers that he’s exactly the kind of mature, responsible kid that many people look for in a babysitter.

But he didn’t get to do any of those things—his mother did them for him. What a missed opportunity, for him and for her.

I can see the argument that this is a parental judgment call. He’s not in high school yet. He’s on the step, but not yet through the door, of that transition when many kids’ capabilities surpass their dependence on Mom and Dad. Maybe this was the first phone call that came in and his mother wanted him to hear the kinds of questions she asks so he can learn to do that himself. It’s possible that he’s been allowed all sorts of opportunities to represent himself.

But no matter what the reason, I hope he’ll soon be answering his own phone calls, handling his own interviews, and learning his own lessons along the way. He won’t do it perfectly the first time. But he’ll get better with each repetition as long as he’s given the opportunity to stretch and learn.

Those kids—the ones who can think and act for themselves—are the high school students who will raise their hands in class, or call a local non-profit to inquire about volunteer opportunities, or sit comfortably and have a conversation with their college interviewer.

They later become the college students who will visit a professor during office hours, show up for the club meeting they saw advertised on a campus flyer, or seek out resources, opportunities, and mentors that are widely available for students who don’t just sit back and wait.

And yes, they become the adults who can navigate their way through life’s personal and professional complexities, where your success and happiness are driven a lot more by your work ethic, character, confidence, communication skills, and empathy than they are by your ability to follow directions and get an “A.”

Parents, as your kids progress through the teenage years, some of the most crucial lessons they can learn won’t be in the classroom, or even in their chosen activities. The teachings will come from the experiences around how they’ve chosen to spend their time. There’s a host of maturing opportunities around getting a job as a babysitter that have nothing to do with taking care of kids. Those same opportunities exist when they don’t get into a class that they want, or they run for a club office and lose the election, or they see an exciting opportunity but aren’t sure how to pursue it. That’s where life’s learning happens. And it’s important that parents let them enroll.

It’s a process, and you shouldn’t be expected to flip the independence switch one day. But just like when you teach them to drive, eventually, you’ve got to let them take the wheel for themselves. If you don’t, you’ll be driving them forever.

I think any student, no matter what their grades and test scores, can become someone who’s capable of making their way successfully. But they need their parents to step back and allow them the opportunities to stretch and learn.

The confidence formula

Whether you’re selling, dating, or trying to get into college, confidence helps. And it works best when you combine two beliefs.

1. I’d really like for this to work out between us.
2. If you decide I’m not for you, no hard feelings. There are others I may be a better match for.

No pressure. No arrogance. No desperation. Just a genuine interest in finding the best path forward for both parties and the recognition that one no today is just that—one no today.

Someday, it’s going to be you

Sharing the concluding paragraph of Caitlin Flanagan’s recent NY Times piece about dropping her sons off at college feels like it needs a spoiler alert. So if you’re really interested in the article, please read it first and then come back for my message. But for the rest of you, here’s the snippet:

“I had only one moment of the kind of reckoning I’d been dreading all summer, or perhaps for the past 18 years. We’d dropped the first son off in Ohio, the second in New York, and I’d stayed around for a couple of extra days in case I was needed (I wasn’t). On my last day, I met him at a coffee shop near his dorm. We sat in the sunshine with cold drinks, and he seemed to me impossibly young to be left there — as young, I’m certain, as I must have seemed to my own parents in 1979. And then it was time to go to the airport. I hailed a cab, and my son heaved my suitcase into the trunk. I hugged him one last time, as quickly as possible, and got in the cab. And then I watched him disappear into a jostling New York crowd, headed in the general direction of his memory foam mattress topper and his new life.”

I’ll admit it—my kids are both under three, but that paragraph still got to me. Someday, that’s going to be us, my wife and I dropping each of our boys off at college. As long as they’re happy and excited about where they’re going, I’m certain we won’t care at all whether or not the schools are famous. But as celebratory as it’ll be for them, I’m guessing that moment when they each walk off into their new lives will be bittersweet for us.

Parents, no matter where you are in the college process, someday, that’s going to be you dropping your kids off and saying goodbye. Someday, the SATs and the applications and the consternation around choosing Calculus or Advanced Placement Statistics will all be over, and they’ll wave goodbye to start their new lives in college.

Knowing that it’s going to be you someday, what do you want the days, weeks, months, and years that precede that moment to look like? When that big day comes, what will be important to you to say about the time that led up to it, when they searched and applied and chose the place they’ll call home for the next four years, all while they were still eating at your dinner table and sleeping in their room down the hall?

Regular readers likely know what I’d prescribe, and even more likely, what I’d rally against. But no matter what your answer, make the choice. Decide today what you want that path to look like.

Your family deserves more than to focus only on the destination at the expense of the journey. And it’s a more compelling exercise to be thoughtful about that path when you know that no matter what you do, that day is coming. It’s going to be you someday.

Join us at an upcoming webinar

Collegewise is offering a series of webinars for students, parents, and counselors. The schedule and the links to register are below (I’ll be presenting the August 22 college essay session).

I hope you can join us.

Tuesday, August 22: How to Write a Great College Essay
Wednesday, September 20: How to Make Your Common App a Lot Less Common
Tuesday, October 17: The Art of the Short Answer
Wednesday, November 8It’s Not Too Late: How to Complete Stellar College Applications when Deadlines are Looming