Promised peaks, occasional valleys

The problem of seemingly pervasive feelings of loneliness on college campuses is earning increasing concern from counselors and parents. Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece, “The Real Campus Scourge,” revealed a survey of 28,000 college students, 60 percent of whom said they had felt “very lonely” over the last 12 months. And Cornell University freshman Emery Bergman’s video about her struggle to make friends has received over a quarter million views on her YouTube channel, buoyed by its inclusion in the parenting section of the Today Show website in a piece entitled, “This freshman’s video nails what loneliness in college feels like.”

Both the article and the video point out the adverse effects of social media, how kids today are electronically pummeled with photos and videos that have been rigorously culled to showcase only the high points of their friends’ lives. But I wonder if this might also be yet another symptom of the increased attention to, anxiety over, and obsession with getting into college.

Much of the admissions pressure kids experience comes with the implied or outright stated promise that this will all be worth it once they get there. They’re told that college will be the best time of their lives. They’re told that the experience will be transformational (especially if they attend a highly selective college). They’re told that the social ills of high school will be left to the past and that things will get better in college. I’ve certainly perpetuated some of that messaging here.

It’s a lot to promise kids, and an unreasonable expectation of colleges unless you include a disclaimer. College can and will likely be all that. But it might not happen in the first week or semester. It might not even happen the first year. Great things take time to make. And the value of any life experience is the sum of its parts, not the speed with which all the expectations are fulfilled.

Maybe the way to combat this is not just to ease off on our college fixation, but also to tell kids the truth. College is your first big step into the real world as an independent adult. Colleges, much like friendships, jobs, and romantic relationships, are never perfect. You’ll have good days. You’ll have bad days. You’ll have long stretches of each. And it will be much easier to wait patiently for the promised peaks when you’re not surprised by the occasional valleys.

What’s the harm in overparenting?

This 12-minute NPR piece with Julie Lythcott-Haims features interview clips as well as segments from a popular TED Talk, “What’s the harm in overparenting?” It’s well worth the listen for parents, and I thought one of the most important reminders came from a casual mention that wasn’t even the primary focus of the segment:

“The biggest brand-name places [colleges] are demanding a degree of perfection from our kids that they never asked of us when we were coming up.”

Here’s the link to the full show featuring several other speakers, but you’ll find Lythcott-Haim’s portion by scrolling down the page to the top of the list of speakers.

Six tips to treat PowerPoint presentation pain

Counselors (and parents), if you’re planning on using PowerPoint for your next presentation, please consider Seth Godin’s six tips in his recent post, “Words on slides.” Not surprisingly, some of the very same tips are part of the recommended slide preparation for those delivering a TED Talk.

If you’ve ever sat through a talk where the presenter spends the majority of the time reading text-heavy bullet points from slides, all of which you simply could have read yourself had the deck just been emailed to you ahead of time, you know the need to cure this presentation pain.

Are you tired of college talk?

The process of getting into college dominates many families’ conversations. Progress in classes, test score check-ups, activities and honors, and the elusive edge to gain admission to the dream college—it’s no wonder that even many of the highest achieving teens seem to disengage from these conversations the longer they go on.

If your family is suffering from admissions discussion overload, here’s something to try—pick one day. Agree on one day of the week where you suspend all discussion of college admissions talk.

Do the one day experiment and you’ll see that nothing bad happens. Grades don’t go down. Test scores don’t drop. Georgetown doesn’t check in and express concern that they haven’t received an email with a question from anyone in your family. Just take one day and you’ll see that you get all the benefits of a college-talk free day with no negative side effects.

Even better, once you see for yourself how well one day works, try the opposite—limit your discussion of college-related topics to one day only. Spend the rest of the week talking about anything but college.

I think that healthy, productive discussion for families is part of a successful and enjoyable ride to college. But it should never be the dominant topic. Focusing that much on each and every element of the process–treating it like a high stakes game where momentarily losing your focus means losing your advantage–just adds pressure, tension, and anxiety without any added benefit or improved results.

Of course, some families could stand to talk a lot more about college, especially in cases where kids aren’t getting the encouragement that can make all the difference. But you’re not one of them if your family is officially tired of college talk.

How to evaluate your involvements

Too many students use the same metric to evaluate the ways they’re spending their time outside of class—will this look good to colleges? Most knowledgeable counselors—and colleges themselves—will tell you that this is the wrong metric to use and the wrong question to ask. There is no existing list of activities, hobbies, or other uses of your time that colleges universally consider good or better than any other. So if you want to check in with yourself and evaluate if you’re spending your time in ways that will pay off (regardless of how you would define paying off), here are three questions to focus on.

1. What are my strengths?
Finding fulfilling activities means knowing something about yourself. What are you predisposed to do well? When do you feel like you’re in the flow, performing at a high level and feeling energized by the experience? Whether your answer is talking to customers at the drive-thru window, working through calculus problems, or performing on a stage, if the act of doing it makes you feel energized today and eager to do even more of it tomorrow, it’s probably tapping into your existing strengths. Research has also shown that strengths improve more than weaknesses do. So if you’re looking to stand out, you’re better off doubling down on an existing strength than you are trying to polish a perceived imperfect weakness.

2. Do I get to use my strengths here?
If you’ve identified your strengths, it’s worth considering if you’re getting to use them within each activity. And if you’re not using them, is it because you’ve chosen the wrong activity, or because you’re not finding ways to use them within that activity? Your skills that make people enjoy working together aren’t being put to use if the club you joined seems to hold meetings but not do much else. Could you volunteer to organize a group to take on one of the club’s important projects? Whenever possible, find a way to put your strengths to use. And if you can’t, consider if your time might be happier and more productive spent doing something else.

3. Am I enjoying my experience?
Participating in your chosen activities should make you happy. If you genuinely hate going to volleyball practice or playing the viola or taking kung fu classes, the net effect seems negative whether or not you’re using your strengths. And consider the alternative scenario—maybe you love participating in something that you’re not particularly good at. Some of the most compelling essays I’ve ever read were from kids who loved an activity even though they were nowhere near great at it, like the slowest runner on the cross country team or the student who began his essay, “Artistically, I peaked in kindergarten,” but had spent several years taking art classes anyway just because he enjoyed them.

Most importantly, all of these questions keep the focus on the most important factor—you. Worry less about what colleges will appreciate. Worry more about finding ways to spend your time that you will appreciate.

What is your contribution worth?

I’ve written often here that high school students don’t have to be the valedictorian, MVP, first chair, etc. to stand out, that your impact isn’t limited to your accolades, and that even role players can make vital contributions. But I can imagine some students’ and parents’ skepticism, wondering how riding the basketball bench or scooping popcorn at the movie theater could possibly be valuable enough to impact others and to impress colleges. If you want some proof that bringing a little more energy, enthusiasm, or creativity can make a remarkable impact in an otherwise unremarkable role, look no further than Southwest Airlines.

If you’ve flown Southwest, you may have experienced a flight safety announcement unlike any you’ve heard before. Where every other airline seems to phone it in and read the same mundane announcement you’ve heard before about seat belts and oxygen and life rafts, Southwest encourages their flight attendants to be creative with zingers like:

If you wish to smoke, the smoking section on this airplane is on the wing. If you can light ’em, you can smoke ’em.

Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then on your child. If you’re traveling with more than one child, start with the one who has more potential or who is less likely to put you in the home.

If you should get to use the life vest in a real-life situation, the vest is yours to keep.

Southwest is the only airline I know of that has fliers who answer the question “How was your flight?” by reciting their favorite portion of the in-flight announcements.

But what is all that laughter and fun worth to the bottom line for Southwest Airlines?

In their new book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, authors Chip and Dan Heath spoke with the Southwest Airlines analytics team to find the answer to that question. The team learned that when travelers who flew more than once a year on Southwest heard one of these creative announcements, they would fly an average of an extra half flight over the next year. That might not sound like much, but the team calculated that if they could double the number of flights where the announcement was creative (not all of Southwest’s flight attendants elect to put their own spin on the presentation), the impact would be worth an additional $140 million in revenue. That’s the cost of two planes for Southwest. All from just letting flight attendants bring some personality and vigor to something otherwise ordinary.

Your energy, verve, or other impact may not be worth millions of dollars to the bottom line for the Latin Club, hockey team, or non-profit where you volunteer. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth something—to you, to the organization, and to colleges.

How to demonstrate your leadership skills

“Leadership skills” are one of those traits that garners a lot of mentions in college applications and essays (e.g., “During my tenure as Student Body Treasurer, I developed leadership skills…”), but often without specific examples to substantiate them. Just holding a position or office isn’t evidence of leadership. Neither is just holding meetings every Tuesday during lunch. Real leaders have followers who are enrolled in a compelling vision of the future that the leader has vividly depicted.

If you’re interested in leading, or if you’re currently in a leadership position and want to gauge your progress, here are three questions to consider.

1. Are your people going somewhere?
The essence of leading followers is that you’re taking them somewhere. Is your team, club, or organization focused on a goal, change, improvement, or other destination? If not, then they’re not being led anywhere.

2. Are you the person who is painting the portrait of the destination?
Good leadership doesn’t stop with adding something to an agenda. It describes a compelling vision that people can see, to the point that it excites them and motivates them to follow you.

3. Are you modeling the behavior that will get you where you want to go?
Imagine a team captain who talked constantly of winning a championship but consistently missed practice, or didn’t learn the plays, or played so selfishly that it hurt the team’s chances of winning. The first step to earning trust from your followers is to do as you say. And the fastest way to lose those you’re leading is to show them that you’re all talk and no action.

And here’s a past post (with links to other articles) about leadership as demonstrated in college admissions.

Old news, new audiences

One of my oldest friends from college who has a son just starting his college search asked me for my take on an article from his local paper. Entitled “Test Perfection Isn’t Enough,” it described a staggering level of competition where, to use the article’s words, “perfection doesn’t guarantee a spot at Stanford, Princeton, or even Berkeley.”

For my friend, this was a gloomy admissions scenario, a sign of scary times to come for his family as his high-achieving son decides where he will go to college. But to me the story was akin to one entitled “Cigarettes are Detrimental to Your Health” or “Smoke Detectors Increase Your Family’s Chance of Surviving a Fire.” Old news.

Repeating old news for new audiences is yet another factor that creates unnecessary anxiety for families during the college admissions process. Every spring since I founded Collegewise in 1999, the same headlines run again like clockwork—admission rates at the most selective colleges are down, perfection isn’t enough, the competition is staggering, etc. Those articles never mention that the colleges in question represent just a fraction of the over 2,000 from which to choose and that most schools in our country accept far more applicants than they turn away. What gets left out gives the headlines even more oomph.

If you’re a high school counselor or a parent who’s been through the process with older kids, it’s all old news. Not necessarily inaccurate in its facts, but not a breaking story, either. And what an unnecessarily scary message for a family who’s entering the process for the first time to see seemingly substantiated proof that they have every reason to be anxious. It’s no wonder so many people end up approaching the process like an arduous rite of passage to survive rather than an exciting journey to enjoy.

It’s healthy to stay informed, and I’m not suggesting any family should discount any or all news when it relates to college admissions. But the press wants people to be grabbed by headlines, especially for those pieces that are trying to do more than report the events of the day. And that means that you’ll need to be discerning about whether the news you’re taking in should affect your outlook or your college application plans.

When in doubt, ask yourself these two questions when ingesting any news about admissions:

1. Is the news describing a change?
A change needs to be anchored in a description of before and after. The article my friend shared with me never claimed the statistics represented any sort of shift from how things used to be to how they are today. It merely told readers that the most selective colleges in the country are still hard to get into.

2. Is the news broadly applicable?
When the press reported on the changes to the FAFSA last year, that was a global change to the process that affected every family intending on applying for need-based financial aid for college. But a story about how Harvard denied even more kids than they did the year before, or how the already highly competitive Ivy League schools were still very competitive? That’s not broad (or new) news.

These questions alone won’t insulate you from clickbait-induced anxiety. But they’re a good start to identifying old news pitched to new audiences.

Multiple deposits put your admission at risk

Most colleges require admitted students to declare their intention to enroll by May 1, and to do so by sending a non-refundable deposit. If you’re in the enviable position of considering offers of admission from multiple desirable colleges and you have trouble picking just one, you might be tempted to buy time and place deposits at more than one school (a practice colleges and counselors call “double-depositing”). But please don’t do it, for all the reasons I outlined in this past post.

If those reasons aren’t enough, here’s another. If you applied using the Common Application, the signature page you submitted included this language:

I affirm that I will send an enrollment deposit (or equivalent) to only one institution; sending multiple deposits (or equivalent) may result in the withdrawal of my admission offers from all institutions.

Sending multiple deposits is bad form, it sets a bad precedent, and it just might result in your receiving new—bad—admissions news.

Admissions negativity getting you down?

In many social circles, pressure surrounding college admissions causes a pervasive negativity. Lamenting weaknesses rather than leveraging strengths, bemoaning the selectivity of one school instead of celebrating the accessibility of so many others, treating the journey like an escalating arms race instead of an exciting time in a student’s life—it’s no wonder so many families struggle to find the joy in what should be a joyful time.

But there are steps you can take to combat that negativity, many of which have nothing to do with college planning or improving your admissions chances. Author and wellness consultant Michelle Gielan shares some strategies here. They were intended to help professionals overcome negativity at work. But all of these recommendations are just as effective for the college-bound.