Goofing off = better learning

Dr. Lea Waters is the author of The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. Here’s a snippet from her recent article in The Atlantic, “How Goofing Off Helps Kids Learn.”

“When parents seek my advice about what activities their child should be doing, they’re often surprised when I pare down their proposed list and prescribe free time during the week for good goofing off. It’s not that kids aren’t paying attention during this time, it’s that their attention has shifted within. Important things are going on in there. Even adults can only pay attention for about 20 minutes at a time before getting less effective. When a child has finished her math homework and is taking time between assignments to make a smoothie or read a chapter in a book, or when he comes home after school and blows off steam by shooting baskets in the backyard for an hour before starting his homework, the brain is still processing information very effectively. It’s sorting through what it’s taken in, attaching emotional meaning to it, cementing it in memory, and integrating it into the individual’s core self. It’s all part of building a child’s identity, about learning who they are apart from what they do.”

What’s the high school version?

If you’re one of those high school students who already has a future career in mind, consider this: what’s the high school version of that career?

Maybe you want to be a teacher. You can’t apply to a school and start teaching math next week. But you could pick something you know a lot about and teach other people how to do it. Start a YouTube channel and show people how to sketch freehand. Propose a continuing education class to a local community college and teach people how to program. Volunteer with a local organization that teaches illiterate adults how to read. Teaching in a school classroom might be limited to those with the right credentials. But the high school version lets you start teaching today.

A future doctor can get certified as an emergency medical technician and spend the summer running IVs in an ambulance.

A future full-time programmer can learn, experiment with, and spend time programming in their spare time.

If you want to make a living as a writer tomorrow, what’s stopping you from writing for a blog today?

Actors who spend two years vying for spots in community theater productions, or performing with a local improv group, or producing plays for elementary school kids will be a lot further ahead in their professional quest than those who limited their participation to high school productions.

Want to be a sports agent someday? Pick a sport at your high school and ask the coach, “What do your athletes need?” Then make it your quest to help them get it. Help raise funds to buy new uniforms for the lacrosse team. Find guest coaches to run clinics for the softball team. Handle all the logistics for the cross country team’s summer stay in the mountains to train at altitude. Imagine how much you’d learn about selling, strategizing, and advocating. Sounds like a budding sports agent to me.

Politics, philanthropy, business, art, music, dance, entrepreneurship–I can’t think of a profession that you couldn’t take some small (or even some surprisingly large) first steps towards while you’re still in high school.

What’s the high school version of your future career?

What do you deserve a medal for?

Not everything you do that’s award-worthy actually has an award attached to it. So here’s a useful exercise as you apply to college. Think about how you’ve spent your time in high school—in the classroom, in your activities or jobs, at home, etc. And for each of those areas, ask yourself, “What do I deserve a medal for?”


“I babysat my colicky newborn brother every day for 18 months after school while my parents worked.”

“I brought Abigail back from a panic attack minutes before our jazz band took the stage.”

“I spent every lunch hour for three weeks getting extra help from my chemistry teacher to claw my way to a C in that class.”

“I rode the bench on the basketball team all season, but nobody was more positive about being on the team than I was.”

“I read ten books about World War II last summer because I’m a legitimate history buff.”

“I broke a rib during my black belt test and still took the SAT the next day.”

“I was really scared to leave home for the first time to spend a summer with a host family in Argentina, but I did it. And I came back fluent in Spanish.”

“I created my own concoction at the smoothie shop where I work and now people request it all the time.”

Then, as you complete your applications, essays, and interviews, look for the appropriate places to share these medal-worthy stories.

Seniors, what have you done—and underclassmen, what are you doing—that deserves a medal?

A university professor’s perspective on over-involved parents

Duquesne University professor Dr. Karen Fancher’s office is directly in front of the elevator doors, leading to a recurring experience which she describes as follows (the link within this quote also appears in the article):

“I’m concentrating on something, but out of the corner of my eye I see the elevator doors slide open. It’s a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman, presumably her mother. The parent walks into my office, with the girl trailing sheepishly behind. The mother says, ‘My daughter will be starting here in the fall. We want to change one of her elective classes.’ I try to make eye contact and address the girl as I politely give them directions to the Office of Student Services down the hall, but it’s the mother who apologizes for interrupting me. They leave my office, Mom leading the way with the class schedule in her hand. Do you see the issue here? The child has been accepted into a major university and is weeks away from starting a difficult area of study, but it’s her parent who is doing all of the talking to get her problem corrected, while she says nothing and appears to be dragged along against her will.”

The article goes on to share not only a thoughtful analysis of both the long-term detrimental effects on kids and the challenges for faculty dealing with over-involved parents, but also some tips for parents that can help you step back and allow your kids to take responsibility for their own educations.

“No” today vs. “No” forever

The summer before my senior year of college, I was one of five students hired to run the summer orientation programs for incoming freshmen. Part of that job involved interviewing more than 350 applicants to fill fewer than 100 positions as summer volunteers to help run the program. That meant saying no to more than twice the number of people we would say yes to.

Each of us started by dividing the applications from those we’d personally interviewed into three piles—clear yes’s, clear no’s, and those who needed further discussion.

Between the five of us, our clear yes piles totaled 170 people. Almost twice the number we had space for.

We wouldn’t even have the chance to debate those who we thought needed further discussion. We had to debate which 70 of those clear yes’s—all great candidates who made overwhelmingly positive impressions on those of us who’d interviewed them—would be turned away.

We sat together on a Saturday and made impassioned cases for our own picks before putting each individual decision to a group vote. Seven hours later, we had our hundred picks. 100 great candidates were in, but 70 people who clearly deserved to be there were out.

And two days later, all of the applicants received their decisions.

Those 70 great people we turned away did absolutely nothing wrong. They were exactly the kinds of students who could make great contributions to our staff and to our program’s mission. Many of them were our friends. A few had applied specifically because we encouraged them to. And now we had to face them on campus, knowing they had every right to feel a little hurt and confused as to why they weren’t hired.

I loved being a summer orientation coordinator. But I hated the next few weeks of disappointed faces and incredulous inquiries about why we said no.

If you plan on applying to highly selective colleges that turn away far more applicants than they admit, the selection process will look a lot like what we faced hiring our staff all those summers ago.

You might have done everything expected of you in high school. You might have taken the most challenging classes, earned top grades and test scores, and thrived in your activities. You might have glowing letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors. You may even have been encouraged to apply by your counselor or an admissions representative that you’ve had the chance to communicate with.

But eventually, the mathematical reality will set in. What makes a college highly selective is that there are far too many applicants who deserve to be admitted, and not nearly enough spaces to accommodate them. Every admissions officer I’ve ever met who worked at one of those schools remembers just how much it hurt to argue passionately in favor of an applicant who so clearly belonged there, only to be voted down by the committee. Knowing that a student who deserved to be admitted would soon be receiving a denial is a reality in that world, but it never gets any easier for the people making the decisions, not to mention for the applicants who receive the bad news.

Rather than try to worry your way to a decision that you can influence but never actually control, you can respond to this reality in a healthy way.

First, please accept the fact that no matter how much you’ve achieved in high school, you simply cannot apply to a list comprised only of schools who turn away the majority of their applicants. You deserve better than to cross your fingers and hope to beat the odds. You deserve to have many great colleges from which to choose. If you’ve done the work and you’re willing to broaden your definition of a great college beyond those that reside at the top of the arbitrary rankings list, there are plenty of them out there that will practically trip over themselves to admit you.

Second, you can come to terms with the fact that admissions at highly selective colleges is not a meritocracy where the highest numbers always win. The math simply doesn’t allow it. All you can do is put your best application foot forward, trust that admissions committees do their best to be fair and thorough (they really do), and remember that even if things don’t go your way, it doesn’t necessarily mean you weren’t qualified. It likely means that there just weren’t enough spaces to go around.

Finally, and most importantly, you can remind yourself that your track record of great work will always be appreciated and rewarded somewhere, no matter what any individual college’s decision may be.

None of those 70 people we turned away had any long-term damage done. Some may have been temporarily stung by the decision, but they were too smart, too successful, and too driven to let one no deter them. They all bounced back and found other organizations where they could put their talents to use. After a month or so had passed, they’d moved on. And we no longer had to dread running into people we’d disappointed.

A no today doesn’t mean no forever.

“Show, don’t tell…”

Fans of ABC’s Shark Tank, where investment-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks), have seen this scenario play out on the show. The sharks are interested, but on the fence, questioning if there’s enough potential in this business to earn their time, money, and attention. Sensing that he or she is at risk of losing their potential deal, the entrepreneur tries to tell the sharks what sets them apart.

“I’m relentless. I will not give up.”

“You won’t find someone who works harder than I do.”

“I am passionate about this!”

I’ve seen almost every episode of Shark Tank, but I’ve never seen any of these statements alone lure a shark to make an offer.

Persistence, hard work, and passion are prerequisites for entrepreneurial success. And just because you do those things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business.

Would an NFL coach be swayed just because you claimed to practice hard?

Would a potential romantic partner be swayed just because you claimed to be a nice person?

Would a recruiter at Google or Apple be swayed just because you claimed to be passionate about technology?

In each of these cases—and on Shark Tank—showing works a lot better than telling does.

If you want to see how showing versus telling is done, scroll to 3:50 of this Shark Tank clip and watch entrepreneur Nathan Holzapfel. In just 20 seconds, he gets the sharks interested, not by telling them that he works hard and he cares and he keeps going, but by actually showing them. 20 seconds is all it takes for him to get billionaire investor Mark Cuban to belt out, “I love you—I LOVE you!”

When you’re writing your college essays, don’t just tell colleges that you’re resilient or hard-working or passionate. Show them.

And if you’re working your way through high school, remember that the best way to be successful and to get into college is to put your natural strengths to the best use so you have something to show for them.

The role of “parent”

Parents, imagine you had a big presentation at work. You worked and worried. You put in the long hours and maybe even a restless night or two. But unfortunately, it just didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. You’re disappointed. The wind is officially out of your sails. You feel like you failed and you need to muster the energy to pick yourself back up and get back to work tomorrow.

What would you want your kids to say to you when you got home?

“Maybe you should have started on the presentation earlier.”

“Is this going to negatively impact your chances at a promotion?”

“What’s your boss’s email address? I want to talk to her and see how we can fix this.”

“You’ll need to make up for that with some extra sales numbers this quarter.”

“Making good slides is definitely not your strong point. We should get you someone to help you with that before the next presentation.”

Or would you rather your kids told you they were sorry that it didn’t go as you’d hoped, gave you a hug, and kept treating you like their mom or dad who they love unconditionally, regardless of your professional successes or failures?

I know that parents feel inextricably linked to their kids’ education. But as much as possible, try to preserve your role as mom or dad, a role that doesn’t change with any grade, test score, or admissions decision.

Bonus suggestion: Say one thing to your kids today that reminds them exactly what role you’re playing. Don’t assume that they know.

Mistakes can be persuasive

Just a month ago, I posted about how sharing weaknesses can accentuate a strength. Here’s another example, this one from Warren Buffet, the 86-year-old CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s most successful investors.

The financial and business stakes are high when Buffett pens his annual letter to shareholders. Yet as Bob Cialdini, a psychology professor who studies and writes on the science of influence and persuasion, points out in this recent CNBC piece, Buffet almost always describes—within the first page or two—an error or mistake that he and his company made in the previous year.

Here’s how Cialdini describes the effect of those admissions:

“It is so disarming. . . I say to myself every time, ‘Oh! This guy is being straight with us. What is he going to say next? I need to pay attention to everything he says next!. . . He’s established himself as a trustworthy credible source of information before he describes the things that are most favorable, that he wants me to process and recall. Brilliant.”

Mistakes really can be persuasive, a tip worth remembering for students who will soon be trying to persuade with their applications and essays.

Five college admissions regrets (and how to avoid them)

Many families who’ve been through the college admissions process look back on that time with regrets. But their hindsight can be your foresight if you’re willing to learn from their experiences. Here are five of the most common college admissions regrets and how to avoid them.

1. Failing to seek the right advice
You can avoid almost all common college admissions regrets by seeking the right advice, which always starts by visiting your high school counselor, ideally well before you begin completing applications. The right advice almost never comes from people who don’t know what they’re talking about or who don’t have any skin in the game. Seek out the advice and don’t wait to do it.

2. Not applying for financial aid
There are a lot of reasons families make this mistake, ranging from simply not realizing when the necessary applications are due, to making erroneous assumptions about their eligibility for aid, to misbelieving that simply applying for aid could hurt their student’s chances of admission. This is an easy regret to avoid—just apply for aid. Don’t make excuses, don’t put it off, don’t resolve to worry about how to pay for college later. Just visit the financial aid section of each of your chosen colleges’ websites and follow the instructions to apply for need-based aid. Here’s a past post for senior families concerned about costs, and another that broadens the advice to all grades of high school.

3. Cutting deadlines too close
Every year, countless families lament how stressful the process was simply because their student was frantically completing applications and essays right up until the deadlines. Impending deadlines heighten stress, they make it more difficult for students to relax and focus on the task at hand, and they’re a primary cause of parent/student head-butting (see #5). Instead, start before you have to. Work steadily. Then finish early. I promise you won’t regret it.

4. Applying to too many reach schools
Reach schools are those where your chances of being denied are greater than your chances of being admitted. Some students believe that the best way to improve their student’s chances is to apply to as many of those reaches as possible. But that lottery logic doesn’t work, it increases stress, and inevitably leads to a student receiving far more bad news than good. Even the dean of admission at Harvard believes that approach is a bad idea. A better approach? Balance your college list.

5. Parent/student head-butting
I know that parent and teenage head-butting isn’t limited to college applications. But the college version is easier to avoid. Families can start by agreeing to let the student drive the bus. Students, if you want your parents to step back and let you handle it on your own, remember that trust begets more trust. And parents, here’s a past post with five links to help you do your most important jobs well during this time.