Five ways to annoy your teacher when asking for help

Engaged students aren’t afraid to ask for help from teachers when they need it. And most teachers are happy to help a nice, earnest kid who’s struggling. But there are right ways and wrong ways to ask for that kind of help. Here are five wrong ways.

1. Forget that you’re asking for a favor.
A teacher who spends time to help you outside of class hours is doing you a favor. Instead of preparing before school for their first class, they’re meeting with you. Instead of eating their own lunch at lunchtime, they’re meeting with you. Instead of going home after school when the day is done, they’re meeting with you. That’s their time, not yours. And if you don’t ask them nicely to allocate some of that time to you, if you’re unwilling to meet on days and times that work best for them, and worst of all, if you don’t express your appreciation for their help, it’s hard for any reasonable person to feel good about extending themselves on your behalf.

2. Send your parents to do your talking for you.
Sending your parents on your behalf to ask a teacher for help sends the wrong message. It tells the teacher that your parents care more about this than you do. It tells the teacher that you aren’t taking responsibility for any of your own struggles. And it doesn’t allow your teacher the opportunity to diagnose the root of your struggles or give any preliminary feedback directly to you. When you’re sick, you don’t send your parents to the doctor on your behalf to diagnose what’s ailing you. Like the responsibility for your own health, the responsibility for your education is not something that you should outsource to someone else.

3. Take no responsibility.
How would you feel if you’d worked hard in class all semester and a friend who hadn’t tried at all came to you before the final and said, “This class is so hard! I really need your help to get my grade up. Can you tutor me?” Wouldn’t you feel a little taken advantage of? Wouldn’t you want that friend to at least acknowledge their role in the jam they’d gotten themselves into? That’s roughly how your teacher feels if you ask for help without recognizing what, if any, responsibility you have for your current academic state. If you haven’t paid attention, if you haven’t completed your assignments, or if you just haven’t tried as hard as you should have, and you combine those mistakes with a refusal to take any ownership of them, don’t be surprised if your teacher points out those facts when you ask for help.

4. Blame the subject or the course.

I just don’t get any of this.

This stuff makes no sense!

This class is really confusing.

Statements like those subtly make the case that the teacher, the material, or both are somehow failing you. But there are almost certainly students in your class who are not having the same struggles, so you can’t completely assign blame somewhere else. It’s entirely reasonable to struggle with particular subjects—nobody is great at everything. And like all professions, some teachers are better than others. But directing criticism at chemistry or trig or French is not the best way to elicit help from someone who’s dedicated their professional life to teaching that subject.

5. Ask what to do to improve your grade.
Of course, you want to raise your grade. There’s no shame in that. But there’s a difference between asking, “What can I do to improve my grade?” and, “What can I do to better understand biology?” I understand that many students may not see a difference, but trust me on this one. Asking how to improve your grade smacks of grade grubbing—not a likeable trait in a student. It’s like a struggling restaurant owner contacting Yelp and asking how to improve their low reviews. The low reviews themselves are not the problem. What the restaurant is doing (or not doing) to earn such low marks is the problem. A grade is the measurement of your performance. Asking your teacher to help change the measurement alone just shows that you’re not focusing on the actions (or inactions) that led you to this place.

That’s my summary of what not to do. Here’s a past post focusing on the better ways to ask teachers for help.

Disagree and commit

When two parties can’t come to an agreement over a particular decision, here’s a way to help make the call and move forward with everyone (including those who disagree) on board: disagree and commit.

According to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s recent letter to shareholders, one of the principles that keeps Amazon working like an innovative startup rather than a static behemoth slowed by size and bureaucracy is to make high-quality decisions quickly. Bezos wants people to vigorously debate ideas including his own. But Amazon’s leadership won’t allow the often fruitless pursuit of consensus to prevent smart, necessary decisions from being made. When they reach an impasse, one party will reiterate the reasons they disagree, then commit to doing whatever it takes to make the decision work. They disagree, then commit.

As Bezos describes it:

“I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with ‘I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.’ Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.”

Bezos didn’t keep arguing. He didn’t schedule another meeting to try to convince everyone he was right. And this time, he didn’t change his mind (he often does). But after disagreeing, he committed. He wants the project to be “the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” That’s a lot more supportive—and productive—than someone who says, “This will never work, and I can’t wait to say, ‘I told you so.’”

Not surprisingly, disagree and commit could be really helpful to counselor teams, clubs, and organizations. But it might even be useful in college planning, too.

A student wants to apply to an expensive college that’s out of her family’s budget. The parent doesn’t see the point in expending the application energy and potentially getting the student’s hopes up. The parent could say, “I disagree, but take your best shot—I hope you get in with a generous financial aid package.” Disagree and commit.

A parent is considering hiring a private counselor for her student. The student doesn’t see the need and wants to handle the process on his own. The student could say, “Mom, I don’t think I need someone to help me. But I’ll go to the free introductory meeting. I actually have some questions for her, too. Who knows—maybe it will turn out to be something I want to do.”

The student isn’t committing to working with a counselor yet. But he’s committing to investigate the possibility with an open mind.

A student who struggles with standardized tests wants to take the SAT again. Her counselor thinks that twice is enough and recommends that the student adjust her college list to include schools that will admit her with her current scores. A counselor could say, “I worry that you’re spending too much time on standardized tests. (Disagree.) But it seems like you really feel strongly about this. And it’s your college process, not mine. So I’ll be cheering you on and hoping you get a score that you’ll feel great about. Do you need some recommendations on how to prepare?” (Commit.)

Sometimes we get entrenched in our arguments just so we don’t have to be connected to a decision that eventually proves to be wrong. We don’t want the other party to later say some version of, “Don’t complain—you agreed to do this, too!”

But disagreeing and committing doesn’t just free us from that worry. It also lets us feel more comfortable relenting, allowing the decision to take place, and actually being a productive part of making the decision successful.

The next time you can’t come to an agreement, do more than just agree to disagree. Agree to disagree and commit.

In the business vs. on the business

The most important job of a college counselor is, not surprisingly, college counseling. Sitting down with families and helping them manage a more successful, more enjoyable process isn’t just what people hire us for; it’s also what we do best.

But we can’t meet with students all day because they’re in school. And our busiest time—“Senior Season,” as we call it—runs from July-December. So during the spring, we spend as much time working on our business as we do in it.

Every two weeks, I send an email to everyone in the company asking one question: “What are you working on?” People who want to answer (participation is always optional) fill out a quick survey, and all the answers are shared with the entire company the next day. This has nothing to do with managing people or watching over them to make sure they’re working. Sharing what we’re all up to is one small way to help us feel a little more connected. We don’t all work in one building with each other. Our counselors are spread out all over the country and even internationally. But our regular work sharing lets us draw ideas and inspiration from each other. And if we see something that looks interesting, we can try it ourselves, or reach out and offer to pitch in.

Below, I’ve shared some sample responses from last week. Some are short, some long, some straightforward, some with levity—we don’t mandate how people should respond. And this is one of the few times when we don’t want to be sticklers about great writing. The key is for each coworker to have an opportunity to share whatever work update they’d like to share.

Schools, departments, clubs, organizations, businesses, etc.–we all get busy. We all struggle occasionally just to get the job done like we’ve been hired to do. But whenever you can, give yourself and everyone else the time, space, and opportunity to take on other projects, to improve, push, initiate, or otherwise go beyond what they’re hired to do. Work on your business rather than just in it, and you’ll probably be better—and happier—doing the jobs you were hired to do.

  • Speaking at a middle school, speaking at a college fair, speaking at an art consortium, then taking a break from speaking until May. Also onboarding our new counselor and hoping I don’t scare her away!
  • I am working on setting up our relatively new conference room for a presentation next week, editing activity summaries, sifting through the 2017 debrief to make it useable for everyone, and setting up our summer seminar series. Woot woot!
  • Hiring. We are still on the phone interview stage over here. Moving my office. Slowly building lots of IKEA furniture between student meetings. Eventually getting rid of my old furniture (which was just mine from home). Writing three months of the CW parent newsletter, the one we send to enrolled families. Prepping to present twice (two days, two topics) next week at the New Jersey NACAC college fair in Secaucus—the biggest college fair in the state. Prepping to present next week (on the same day as one of the college fair presentations!) at a local private high school. Meeting with my juniors, finalizing lists, and activity summaries. Meeting with sophomores who are starting college research. Meeting with freshmen who are wrapping up course planning and confirming summer plans. Signing lots of new underclassmen. Scheduling a few summer seminars. Trying to find time to write part of the nursing guide, but slipping on that for sure.
  • I’m LOVING having a partner in crime with the addition of our office’s new counselor and all the fun stuff that comes along with an expanding office. Preparing with the amazing 301 webinar team (there is going to be some meaty stuff for everyone—shameless plug for the May 3rd webinar–DON’T MISS IT!!!)… Working hard to start finalizing some of my 2018 kids’ lists and putting essay brainstorming meetings on the calendar.
  • I am hosting a counselor luncheon on May 9th. So right now I am just monitoring the registration and making plans for a final RSVP push. I am also gearing up for a few seminars during the next three months beginning this Sunday. I am also hiring a Community Organizer (yay!).
  • Lots of speeches, getting ready to present at the TACAC/SACAC/RMACAC Superconference, looking for a co-working space, and a couple of introductory meetings, too.
  • Quite a lot of speeches at night, but the bulk of my time is spent addressing the questions and concerns of my colleagues. I also write many emails that contain nary an explanation point while contemplating our ongoing path to global admissions dominion. Then I have tea.
  • Outreach! I’m excited that I’m in the process of setting up a formal relationship with the public library that will include seminars for students and families, and possibly training for librarians.
  • Prettifying our office for our new addition (she starts in June!). Hitting the financial outreach hard this week and meeting with financial advisors, banks, and equity firms about collaborative seminars and potential partnerships. Stalking my seniors about final decisions and sending out testimonial requests. Moving juniors to final lists and taking photos for our senior wall (how is this happening already?!).
  • Administering the employee engagement survey (please take yours if you haven’t already), preparing for upcoming management trainings in Seattle and NYC (East Coast bound!), updating some recruiting, hiring, and training resources, and drinking significantly more coffee since the arrival of kid #2.
  • With March SAT and April ACT scores available, the name of the game is Reach, Target, Likely/Safety lists! Also, preparing for Casey’s arrival and the 3rd office expansion!
  • Training, training, training, training, coffee, webinar, training, coffee. Also prepping for my NACAC fair speech on Sunday and testing pizza places with Joel. #priorities
  • I’ve had an ongoing project trying to get Yelp pages set up for all of the brick and mortar offices around the country. More and more people are using Yelp as a modern Yellow Pages, and we want to ensure that our contact information is correct in all of our various markets. Getting Yelp to assist us with this has proven much more difficult than anticipated. Next week is finally training week and I’m very excited to meet all the other new Wisers from across the country.
  • I just posted 2 new seminars that I’m excited about. Now, I’m working on getting them filled!
  • I am really excited to be pulling together the training for our new assistants and have enjoyed the process even though I have emailed Allison about it approximately 732 times. Also, getting my new counselor up to speed! It’s her first week and she’s handling it like a champ so far. She hasn’t run screaming from the building and her head hasn’t exploded from information overload (yet). If you other recent newbies want to give her some love and a pep talk, please do!
  • Two big things: revamping essay training materials, and starting the hiring process for new editors and proofreaders. Yay!
  • Training, training, training… Trying to learn all that is Collegewise! Currently staring at Kevin’s face on the on-demand training videos while I learn about intro meetings. My brain is on overload, but I am liking what I hear and am more affirmed I am in the right place! Hope to add to the awesomeness that you all already bring to the program!
  • Creating a one-man video production studio from scratch. I’m in concurrent pre-production on several video projects that will go public in mid-late June. You’ll start to see teasers in May. Working out visits to film in Austin and NY/NJ/CT, interviews with the leadership, and I’m looking for filming opportunities to film students/parents with some help from you guys. Working up several “pilot” projects for what will be a rich content stream on YouTube and Instagram, probably featuring y’all giving tips/advice/wisdom on all things college admissions. Bouncing ideas off leadership and counselors to make sure our content reflects the awesomeness within.

Small adds up

I love this message in one of my favorite blogger’s recent post. Doing something small every day adds up to big changes over time. As he puts it, “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.” Whether you want to get a job one day as a game designer, make the hockey team, or just get better at the trumpet, a little bit of focused effort every day goes a long way.

Very few big accomplishments happen because of one monumental shift. Whatever you want to achieve—this year, during high school, or in life—you’re not going to get there just by meeting one key person, learning one secret, or getting accepted into one college.

Big accomplishments happen when small habits add up.

Accomplishments vs. attitude

The most successful, fulfilled people didn’t get where they are through accomplishments alone. They paired their great drive to achieve with an equally great attitude. It’s true in the workplace, and in college admissions.

You have two applicants with near-perfect GPAs. One is a grade grubber who only cares about getting the A, who whines for extra credit and will not hesitate to send his parents in to argue with the teacher on his behalf. The other is a curious learner who participates in class discussions and helps the student next to him with their trig troubles. Who would you admit?

You have two applicants who’ve done over 40 hours of community service. One did it so she could list the activity on her college applications, did the bare minimum asked of her, and amassed the time without exerting much effort. The other found an organization she cared about, constantly looked for new and better ways to contribute, and has a letter of recommendation from a supervisor raving about her work and lamenting how much the student will be missed when she leaves for college. Who would you admit?

Two applicants enjoyed successful varsity football careers. One cared more about his personal stats than he did about the team and constantly clashed with both coaches and teammates. The other won the Coach’s Award for pairing positivity with his pads, and actually congratulated the talented incoming transfer to whom he lost his starting spot. Who would you admit?

Two students each had minor disciplinary infractions in high school. One complains about the punishment, and blames his cohorts for initiating the prank and the school for making an example out of him. The other gracefully accepts the blame, apologizes, and regrets that he didn’t show better judgement. Who would you admit?

Two students have learning disabilities. One refuses to try, the other refuses to quit. Who would you admit?

One student constantly looks for people to blame for his shortcomings. The other constantly looks for people to thank for his successes. Who would you admit?

Attitude might not be everything in college admissions and in life. But while accomplishments aren’t always entirely in your control, attitude is something that you get to choose.

Catastrophe, or catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is the irrational act of believing that something is a lot worse than it actually is. There are two kinds, and both show up regularly for anxious students and parents going through the college admissions process.

The first creates a catastrophe out of a current non-catastrophic situation.

You get a C on one test and think, “I’m not smart, and I’ll never get into a good college.”

One college says no and you think, “All my hard work was for nothing, and I’ll be miserable at any other college that I go to.”

Your student doesn’t get into an Ivy League school and you think, “She’ll never get over this. I should have paid for even more SAT tutoring. I’ve failed her as a parent.”

The second kind of catastrophizing looks into the future and imagines the worst that could happen.

If the SAT tutoring doesn’t work, I won’t get the score I need and I’ll be rejected from all my favorite colleges.

If she doesn’t get into that AP class, she won’t be ranked in the top 5%, she won’t be competitive for good schools, and she’ll need to transfer to a different college as a junior.

If I don’t get into Stanford, I’ll never get into a good law school, and I’ll let my parents down.

The best way to battle both? Start by asking yourself, “Is this actually a catastrophe, or am I just catastrophizing?”

When you consider that question, try to be objective. Take the emotion out of it and focus rationally on the actual facts.

I acknowledge that some college admissions catastrophizing comes from the complexity and uncertainty of the process. The facts might be that you don’t really know exactly how one C or one test score or one decision will or will not affect your admissions outcomes. In those cases, a quick conversation with your high school counselor will help.

But no calm, rational, non-catastrophizing person truly believes that long-term life damage will be done by one grade, test score, or admissions decision in high school. Short-term impact and even disappointment? In some cases, maybe. But if you’re constantly anxious about the ride to college and wish you could be enjoying it just a little more, remember that the better you can get at differentiating between catastrophes and catastrophizing, the more you’ll be able to focus on the right things.

Parents: how to build better parent/school relations

Parents, here’s a simple exercise that will help you engage productively and appropriately with your student’s high school, forge healthy relationships with faculty, and even give you a nice mood lift.

1. Identify five positive things you’ve witnessed, experienced, or appreciated in the last three months at your student’s school.

Maybe the chemistry teacher spent a lot of extra time with your son helping him improve his grade. Maybe the school gave the girls’ cross country team a lot of well-deserved recognition on campus when they won the league title. Maybe you’re always impressed when you attend the jazz band concerts, or the counselor was the sounding board your student couldn’t find in someone else, or the steps the school is taking to curtail drinking during formal dances makes you feel more secure sending your kids out on those nights.

Just five positive things, big or small, that resonated with you.

2. Thank the person or persons responsible.

Send an email. Write a note. Or say thank you in person. The delivery method doesn’t matter nearly as much as the message does.

You might also have a list of concerns, negative experiences, or constructive criticisms. But that’s not what this exercise is about.

Teachers, administrators, parent leaders—they all appreciate the occasional thank you and pat on the back, just like the rest of us. And in many schools, those expressions don’t arrive nearly as often as the recipients deserve.

So find five reasons to express thanks. And if you can make it a regular habit, imagine how much more receptive those parties will be in the future if you do have a concern you’d like addressed.

Want to attend college outside the US?

Updated 4/18/17: I wrote in my original post that this webinar was free. That was my mistake–we’re charging $10. I promise this wasn’t my attempt at a blogging bait and switch (though my lack of attention to blogging detail is almost as frustrating). Thanks for being patient with me.  

We’re increasingly hearing from families with students who are considering attending college outside of the US. From reduced tuition, to cultural immersion, to fulfilling a sense of adventure, there are many reasons why a student might look to spend four years beyond US borders. If you’d like to learn more–not only about the opportunities, but also the process of applying and getting accepted to international colleges–I hope you’ll join us for this upcoming webinar.

The Inside Scoop on International Admissions
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
5:00 PM – 6:00 PM PDT

All the details, and the link to register, are here.

Real people

Some high school students are so driven to get accepted to selective colleges that they actually morph into full-time applicants. They’re not actually applying to college 24/7. But they talk about their life in terms of GPAs, test scores, activities, accolades, etc. The college applicant displaces the real person.

You’re not a college applicant; you’re a real person who happens to be planning on applying to college. As involved as that process might be, you should still have plenty of areas in your life that have nothing to do with impressing admissions officers.

For example, do you have answers to these questions?

  • What do you do for fun?
  • What’s the best experience you’ve had with a friend in the last six months?
  • When’s the last time you laughed really hard?
  • What relaxes you?
  • Which of your activities means the most to you, the activity you would miss the most if it were taken away from you?
  • What’s the last thing you learned just because you wanted to learn it, not because you had to learn it?
  • If you could create your perfect Sunday, what would it look like?

If you don’t have answers, maybe it’s time to find some.

And if this all seems trivial because you just can’t turn off the applicant mindset, you might be interested to know that many colleges ask these kinds of questions on their applications and during interviews.

They’re not just admitting applicants—they’re admitting real people.