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

Seniors, make your August choice

I think the smartest, most strategic decision a senior can make during the month of August is to choose between two paths for the next four weeks before school starts:

1. Go all in and work like your hair is on fire.
2. Check out, relax, and recharge as much as possible.

Depending on who you are and how you’ve spent your summer, either one can be a really smart decision.

College applications are staring you in the face. And when school starts, you’ll be balancing those with your classes, activities, standardized testing, and other commitments. It’s all doable and seniors get through it every year. But it won’t be easy. So what’s the best August choice for you?

If you’ve had fun this summer, if you’ve enjoyed some days to sleep in, if you’ve spent time with your friends and had your fun and realistically aren’t suffering from any lingering burnout, I’d recommend the go-all-in option. Make it your personal mission to do as much college application-related work before school starts. You may feel like you’re getting cheated out of your final month of summer. But the work will have to get done either way. And I simply cannot imagine a scenario as you progress through the fall when you’ll say, “I really wish I hadn’t gotten such a head start on all this during the summer.”

But maybe your summer hasn’t been all that relaxing. Maybe you’ve had a part- or full-time job. Maybe you’ve been doing intensive test prep. Maybe you’ve been doing reading for AP classes, or volunteering 30 hours a week, or fulfilling other obligations and responsibilities without much opportunity to bask in the traditional lazy days of summer. If so, pick option 2, the one that lets you make the choice to fill your gas tank as much as possible for the remainder of the summer.

The worst path is to either fail to make a choice at all, or to pick one and not commit to it. So think carefully about this. Be honest with yourself about how you’ve spent your summer, and which road will realistically put you on the best path to success. Then make your choice.

Bonus tip: Tell your parents which choice you’ve made, why you’ve made it, and what commitments you’re willing to make to ensure your choice delivers the maximum benefit. It may not be the choice they’d recommend. But if you’re thoughtful, deliberate, and communicative, you’ll at the very least demonstrate that you’re thinking ahead and taking your college applications seriously.

Seniors, there’s no wrong answer, but you’ve got to pick one. Time to make your August choice.

Coming soon—our 2017-2018 Common App Guide

Since 2010, we’ve annually released our Collegewise Common App Guide. It takes applicants through every section of the Common App, line by line, sharing all of our admissions expertise to make sure users present themselves in a compelling way. And for the last two years, we’ve given it away for free.

I’m thrilled to report that we’ll again be releasing this guide free to anyone who wants it, including our competition. Collegewisers Arun and Meredith are busy updating this year’s guide to reflect the most recent changes to the Common Application itself, and they expect to have it polished and ready for release the week of August 17.

If you’d like to be notified when the new guide is available, you can check back here regularly, or just subscribe for updates from the blog. The box to do so is on the left.

Bring a little magic

I worked at a test prep company in my first job out of college. And one of the most memorable people I met at that job was Vic, the UPS guy.

We received 5-10 shipments of materials every week, so Vic visited our office a lot. Every time he did, he would burst in with a smile and greet every single one of us by name. And he’d banter joyfully with all of us.

Somebody better help you answer all those calls, Tracy!

Paul, look at that shirt! Where can I get me a shirt like that?

Adam, why are you getting so many packages? What are you, Santa Claus in here?

I was crossing the street, heading back from the coffee shop one afternoon, when Vic turned the corner in his brown UPS truck. He jokingly gunned the gas and headed right for me before he safely passed by and yelled out the window, “Almost gotcha, Kevin!”

When we put a bulletin board on our office wall with photos of all 120 staff members and teachers who worked for us, it took just one day for Vic to say, “Hey, I gotta get my picture up there!” That request was immediately and enthusiastically fulfilled. Vic felt like part of our work family. He belonged on the board.

But the most incredible thing about Vic is that he seemed to do this with every office he delivered to. There were dozens of buildings with hundreds of offices to visit within a four-block radius. And whenever I saw Vic darting to and from his truck, he was joyfully connecting with everyone he came across along the way, always using their names, just like he did with our office staff.

I still remember the day that Vic shared the news he was retiring at the end of the month. After delivering to that same professional neighborhood for 30 years, he’d decided it was time for him and his wife to load up the Winnebago and hit the open road together for six months. He was excited, but everyone in our office was crestfallen.

We loved Vic. All those long days when the phones and the work and the stress just wouldn’t stop, Vic always seemed to lighten the mood and lift us up. We knew how much we were going to miss him. And I already felt bad for the poor replacement who had to step into Vic’s shoes at the end of the month.

There was nothing special, unique, or indispensable about Vic’s role. UPS could have filled that job with a thousand other drivers who would have performed the responsibilities of the job as well as or better than he did.

But Vic brought magic to that regular role. Every day, he put on a show. He leaned in. He showed up with energy and enthusiasm. He found a way to deliver his unique gifts along with his UPS packages. I can’t recall the name of a single other delivery person who’s come to my door. But I’ll never forget Vic. And there are dozens and dozens of people who worked in the 92612 zip code in the mid 90’s who feel exactly the same way.

Vic didn’t have more responsibility or authority than any other UPS employee. But while there were a thousand employees who could deliver those packages, there was only one Vic. To us, he was irreplaceable.

What’s your personal version of Vic? How could you bring so much effort, emotion, caring, trust, energy, art, etc. that you’d make that kind of impact on the people you interact with every day?

You may not do the same things that Vic did. But whatever role you’re playing, you’ll be a lot more effective, memorable, and indispensable if you bring a little magic to it.

Sleep as an investment, not a cost

Patricia D. Horoho is a retired United States Army lieutenant general who also served as the 43rd U.S. Army Surgeon General and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command. And this interview shares some of her strong beliefs about the importance of sleep in achieving peak performance. In particular, I loved this phrase: “We’ve got to view each hour of sleep as the ammunition our brains need.”

Think of sleep not as a cost to your performance today, but as an investment in your performance tomorrow.