Three paths

Most students are somewhere on one of three paths when they choose their colleges.

  1. I know what I want to do with my life, and college is the path that will help me get there.
  2. I have some idea of what I want to do with my life, and I’d like to use my time in college to explore that path before I commit to it.
  3. I have no idea what I want to do with my life, and I’m going to college to discover more about myself, my talents, and my future path.

Some colleges are much better suited to one path than they are another. If you’re sure you want to be an engineer, it doesn’t make sense to go to a college that doesn’t offer an engineering major. But you don’t necessarily need to attend a highly selective engineering school to start down that path. You have options.

You can pick your colleges and then try to force yourself onto the path(s) they’re best suited to offer. Or you can pick the colleges that are suited to the path you already have to offer them. The former approach requires that you change your path. The latter allows you to embrace it.

Many–if not most–teens can’t draw a line to their future career today with 100% certainty. If you can, then please do. But if you can’t, don’t force it. Whichever path you’re on, there’s a college out there that will help you discover, test, or follow it.

Identify the path you’re on today. And choose a college that will help you take the right path to your tomorrow.

Is it time to make a different choice?

The New York Times ran a story this week entitled “Considering College? Maybe You Should Invest in a Coach,” which elicited reactions ranging from eye-rolling to blood boiling among the Collegewise crew. I won’t share the link here because a story like this is part of the problem that so many of us at Collegewise and in the counseling community are fighting against. The piece isn’t “fake news” in that the sources and statistics are factually correct. But it’s exactly the kind of banal, uninformative story that speaks to the neuroses of a very small population of people and does not represent the broader college admissions landscape.

Here were the themes, all of which you’ve probably heard before in the press and in high school student and parent circles.

  • It’s impossible to get into a “good” college today.
  • Hard-working, perfect-on-paper kids are getting roundly rejected from their dream schools.
  • Even the highest-achieving kids are always just one unintentional, innocuous misstep away—like not maintaining enough eye contact during their college interview—from sinking their admissions ships at their top colleges.
  • Parents are spending lots of money to give their kids an advantage, and they’re doing so as early as infants preparing for pre-school (I swear I am not making this up).
  • The admissions sky is falling, the competition is intense, and your fear is well-founded.

In response to this quote from a coach profiled in the piece, “There are heartbreaking stories every year of a student with a near-perfect SAT score and perfect grades rejected from every Ivy,” Eric Hoover, a writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, tweeted, “If this is your definition of ‘heartbreaking,’ you live a charmed life.”

Bravo, Mr. Hoover.

Every person is entitled to their own worldview. Some people believe that the only restaurants worth visiting are those with Michelin star chefs and a six-month waiting list for a table. But those of us who are perfectly happy with our favorite family-owned restaurant down the street don’t read stories about star chefs and worry that our kids will be at a disadvantage if we don’t start feeding them duck a l’orange at age two. That’s what’s troubling about the press covering this particular college admissions worldview. It implies that the world they describe encapsulates the world of college admissions, which it most certainly does not.

I’ve long wished—and still hold out hope—that the press would cover other stories that represent the majority, not a tiny minority, of the college-going population. I’d love to read tales of earnest, nice kids who got into every school they applied to, none of which were on the US News Top 50, and who flourished during and after college. I’d love to read about the kids who never spent a dime on counseling or test prep or tutoring and happily marched off to their own colleges of choice that were happy to admit them just as they were. I’d love to read about the families who watched their kids grow and learn during college, who beamed with pride as their students walked across the stage at graduation, and continue to beam at their happy and successful kids-turned-adults today, all without ever losing sleep over one grade, test score, or admissions decision.

The press doesn’t write about them. But I promise you they are out there. In fact, there are exponentially more of those families than there are of the anxious, Ivy-League-or-bust families who will stop at nothing to beat the competition and the system.

Families, you get to make a choice about how you approach the process. So please choose. Which camp do you want to be in?

Do you want to buy into the hype that the only colleges worth attending are those who turn away nearly every applicant who applies? Do you want to send the message to your kids that unless they earn an acceptance to a school that almost nobody gets accepted to, they’ve somehow fallen short and are now at a significant life disadvantage?

Or do you want to look around in society and acknowledge that happy and successful adults, from senators to software engineers, social workers to science fiction writers, have come from all kinds of colleges, many of which you’ve never heard of? Would you rather see your student for who they are, not for who a very tiny slice of the over 2,000 colleges in this country require them to be, and then find the schools that will happily welcome them with open admissions arms?

If you choose the first camp, please don’t play the heartbroken card if things don’t work out as you’d hoped. You opted in as you had every right to do. But you made your choice.

And to the press who covers college admissions, maybe it’s time you made a different choice, too?

Define your own “early”

A high school counselor shared a Tweet from one of his students today that addressed the “100 colleges” that had emailed her on August 1 to let her know the Common App was live. Her message to them: “I know it’s live. Please just let me be.”

I’ve definitely pounded the drum here about starting college applications early. Summer tends to be a much more relaxing time to do this work when compared to the fall when seniors are balancing classes, standardized tests, activities, etc. And our Collegewise offices are always abuzz in August with seniors getting an application leg up. In fact, many of them will enter their senior year with an acceptance (usually from a college with rolling admissions) in hand.

But there’s such a thing as too much early encouragement, especially when it just pushes the pressure earlier in the process.

For just about everything worth doing right, starting early tends to be better than starting too late. But we’re not talking about starting an Ironman triathlon here, where getting off to a slow start could doom you for the rest of the race. This isn’t urgent. Nothing bad is going to happen if you wait a little longer. Other students aren’t gaining an advantage that will be unrecoverable for you. Everything is going to be fine.

It’s still summer. There’s plenty of time left to enjoy yourself before the busy fall school season begins. Don’t treat this last month of summer like a sprint where you’re either ahead or behind of everyone else. Yes, I recommend you do some college application work before you head back to school. But what’s most important is that you don’t delay this work so long that the pressure of deadlines increases your anxiety and decreases the quality of the finished work.

So don’t let all this early encouragement leave you feeling like your house is on fire, as if every second you wait will leave you with more destruction and wreckage. College applications are important. But they are never urgent unless you procrastinate to the point where you have no choice but to hurry.

Don’t put it off. Start early. But you can define your own “early.”

If you haven’t saved enough for college

A few weeks ago I shared Mark Kantrowitz’s advice about how much to save for college, but paired it with some of my own for families who hadn’t started saving as soon as they would have liked. Today, Kantrowitz returns with his own follow-up for later-starting-savers, and his piece can be found here.

There’s some overlap between his advice and mine, particularly around embracing the idea that it’s never too late to start saving and that applying for financial aid is a must-do for every family no matter how much or little you’ve saved. But Kantrowitz has always been my go-to resource for learning and understanding how to navigate the financial aid process, and I’ll default to sharing his advice here as frequently as he can churn it out.

Change makers

My number came up for jury duty this week. Anyone who’s gotten this particular call to serve knows that it begins with shuffling everyone scheduled to report that day into one large room for an overview of what to expect. Greg, our clerk, has the unenviable job of beginning his day by facing a room of more than a hundred people, many of whom are there by obligation alone, and explaining the procedures we’ll be following. He was cheerful but also particularly effective in that he changed the room in the first sixty seconds with his explanation of jury reimbursement.

“You’ll be compensated ten dollars a day, which I know is more than most of you paid to park here this morning. That figure isn’t something we’re proud of. In fact, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed since the Eisenhower administration.”

It came off as more empathetic than comedic, but it sure did get a laugh from a tough crowd. And with just one sentence, he won the room over in the most subtle but effective of ways—by showing us that he understood what we were feeling and experiencing.

Greg likely gives some version of that 20-minute overview every day. It would be so easy to just plod through it, to resign himself to the idea that nobody in the room particularly cared what he had to say and that there really was no point in doing more than the bare minimum.

But he’s clearly engaged in his job. He embraces the opportunity to change the posture of everyone in that room, not by following instructions or reading a script, but by bringing some emotional labor to the task at hand. Greg may not have the power to change the system, but he’s got the power to change the day for a lot of people. I’m guessing what we witnessed was just a glimpse of the magic he brings to work.

One of the best ways to stand out is to make change. And you don’t need a title or even a room full of people to do it.

A student who patiently tutors someone from a D to a B in algebra is changing that student’s academic progress. A student who finds ways to make the gym work as a senior prom location instead of bemoaning the reality that a different venue fell through is changing people’s moods. A student who treats every customer who orders a burger when she’s behind the counter like they’ve just made her day by showing up is changing people all day. None of these opportunities require special training or scarce opportunities. They’re available to you in ways that you’re already spending your time every day.

There’s a difference between executing and engaging, between just doing what you’re told and creating an interaction that’s bigger than the work. Not everyone can do what Greg did in front of a crowd. But everyone can do for someone or something what he did for our jury room.

Imagine what would happen if you made a point to consciously create change in whatever you’re doing. Sure, you’d make things better for a lot of people around you. But it’s hard to see how becoming a change maker wouldn’t also change you–and your college admissions chances.

Put your name on it

Homework assignments, exams, and yes, college applications—you can’t submit them without attaching your name. You’re claiming ownership and saying, “I did this.” And there will be a record of your work that you’ll have to stand beside no matter the outcome.

What if you had to do that with everything?

Your boss asks you to organize the stockroom at your part-time job. What if you had to put your name on the finished product?

You approach your teacher after class to ask for extra help, guidance on a project, or a letter of recommendation–what if you had to put your name on the request?

The server at the coffee shop gets your order wrong. What if you had to put your name on the way you respond?

College admissions pressure can chip away at perspective. Some families give way too much attention and gravity to elements that are on your permanent record and not enough to those that aren’t. If you care a lot more about getting your desired number of community service hours signed off than you do about actually contributing and doing a good job, that’s the loss of perspective I’m talking about. The same can be said about the kid who’s off the charts with qualifications but who’s also an arrogant jerk to his counselor, his teachers, and his fellow students. He’s putting plenty of energy into places where he’ll need to sign his name, but forgetting that his name remains attached to his behaviors outside of those records, too.

The message here is not that kids must be perfect human beings all the time. Nobody pulls that off, and colleges really don’t expect it.
But it’s worth considering—not just for kids, but for adults, too—how we might change our behavior if we had to sign our names to it.

The most well-liked, respected, successful kids I’ve had the pleasure of knowing don’t reserve their best selves for official documents. They understand that their reputation is more than a resume and that day-to-day actions add up over time. They act like everything they do will have their name on it.

Whatever you’re doing today, would you do it any differently if you had to put your name on it?

The case for self-driven kids

There’s a lot that resonates with me in The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, but nothing more so than these three false assumptions they invite parents to confront.

False assumption #1 is that there is one narrow pathway to success in life and that kids need to be competitive at all times or be left behind. This assumption places the responsibility on parents to push, control, and manage their kids’ journey along that one defined path.

False assumption #2 is that it is critical to do well in school if you want to do well in life. There are “some winners and many losers,” and parents better make sure their kids fall into the winning segment.

False assumption #3 is that the more parents push, the more likely their kids will become accomplished and successful adults.

For parents who read those false assumptions and find them anything but false, the book probably isn’t for you. But if you’re a parent who’s tired of being made to feel that your kids need to be top-of-the-class, curve-busting, standardized-test-taking, gold-medal-winning leaders and inventors and rocket scientists just to have any chance of making it in the world today, I think you’ll find the book both refreshing and reassuring.

And here’s an NPR interview with the authors that includes the transcript so you can either listen or read.

I’m speaking in Seattle on September 13

I’ll be presenting this session in Seattle at the 2018 TINYcon, a conference about improving the employee experience:

Humans Are Not “Resources”: Little Things That Make the Biggest Difference For Your Best People

Presenter: Kevin McMullin

Employees are people first, and real people care about more than mission statements on the walls, elaborate benefits packages, and ping pong tables at the office. Collegewise doesn’t have nap pods or on-site laundry, but they do have hundreds of applications for every opening, a staff widely recognized as the best in their industry, and almost no employee turnover. Best of all, many of their best people-practices cost only a little time and attention. Join Collegewise founder and managing partner Kevin McMullin and you’ll leave this session with concrete ideas to make your real people feel like they’ve found their professional place to call home.

The conference runs from September 12-14 and isn’t cheap, but if its theme and agenda pique your interest enough to attend, I hope you’ll come say hi at my session on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. All the information is here.

Tips to help kids thrive

The “Parenting” section of the Challenge Success blog has a downloadable flyer, “Tips to Help Your Child Thrive,” and they include a contact person to get in touch with for counselors, schools, or parent leaders who’d like to order bulk copies. Don’t let the reference to children throw you, as the advice has broad applicability for both younger children and for teens in high school.