Parents’ hopes and fears

Brennan Barnard is the director of college counseling at the Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H. His piece in the Washington Post, The deepest fears — and hopes — parents harbor about their kids applying to college, is worth the quick read for parents. While managing to give some tough love to those parents who lose sight of what is really important during the college admissions process, Barnard also injects some support, understanding, and an acknowledgment that even when misguided, parents really do just want what’s best for their kids. And he sums it all up nicely here:

“As we help our children plan for the future and deal with adversity or disappointment, let us remember what motivates us — the desire for them to be their best and find success.  They will have to discover what that means for themselves — and we as parents will continue to balance our hopes and fears as we begin a new year.”

Private counselors: deal with the real

For private counselors launching and growing their practices, one of the surest ways to distract yourself from making good decisions quickly is to invent problems that haven’t happened yet.

What if the counselor I hire and train decides to go out on her own later?

How will I handle overflow if too many people enroll for our workshop?

What if this price for juniors is too low, I enroll too many, and then I don’t have room for as many seniors later this year?

But none of these are real problems today. They’re tomorrow’s imagined problems. And the thing about imagined problems is that most of them never happen.

Sure, you want to make informed decisions. It’s never fun to have to fix something that could have been prevented if you’d just thought it through. But spending all your time avoiding obstacles that might not ever appear just plants you in a world of stress and uncertainty. And your decisions today don’t have to last forever. You can change them later if you need to.

So deal with what’s real today. You’ll make better decisions. You’ll feel more control over your own destiny. And you’ll have more time, energy, and resources to spend if a problem does present itself later.

Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]

Laszlo Bock is a former SVP of People Operations and Senior Advisor at Google, and the author of Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. His LinkedIn piece shares his personal formula for crafting a winning resume.

Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]

The formula could be applied to crafting winning college applications. But I think it also could help students evaluate just how much of an impact they’re making in and out of the classroom. You don’t have to be the president, MVP, or first chair to make valuable contributions. Even the role player in the club, the recipient of the Coach’s Award for effort rather than playing time, or the consummate good natured oboe player who isn’t the best musician can still be vital to the spirit and success of their respective groups. If you consider how your participation fits into the formula (which pairs well with my advice here on how to measure impact), you’ll contribute more to—and get more from—your chosen activities.

Just because

Seth Godin’s post, Is kindness a luxury?, points out that someone who’s only willing to be kind when they have enough money, confidence, and everything else they want is actually working against getting where they want to go. Kindness is the foundation. If you start with that, you get closer to satisfying those other desires. And you enjoy the ride along the way.

That sentiment certainly applies to high school students (to all of us, really). But it’s also a good reminder for those who want to get into college that you shouldn’t reserve your best efforts, qualities, or contributions for only those tasks where there’s a guaranteed payoff.

Raise your hand in class even if participation doesn’t count toward your grade.

Help round up the balls after basketball practice because that’s what good teammates do.

Stay late to help clean up after the school dance even when it’s not your job.

Write thank you notes to your teachers and counselors who helped you apply to college, even if you don’t get into your first choice school.

Be nice to the kid that nobody else is nice to even if you’ll take some immature guff from students who are too insecure to do the same.

You can’t list most of these on your college applications. But you’re more likely to get rewards if you make a habit of doing the right thing just because.

Five lessons from effective executives

Peter Drucker has been called the inventor of modern management. His formative book, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, was first published in 1966. While the language is noticeably dated (the book only refers to executives as men), it’s surprising how relevant the ideas presented still are today.

Here are five traits the book identifies in effective executives that I think could apply to just about any college-bound high school student.

1. They value their own time.
Effective executives understand that time is their most precious resource. And as much as possible, they want to make conscious, informed decisions about how they spend it. The forthcoming lessons discuss more about how they do this, but Drucker raises this point early on to make the case that effectiveness can be learned, and must be intentional. Effective executives don’t just show up for work and hope to have something to show for it by the end of the day.

Related to valuing their time, I also loved what Drucker had to say about meetings.

“Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time…An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.”

2. They constantly ask, “What can I contribute?”
In every situation, task, or crisis, effective executives want to make important contributions. The more they contribute, the more valuable and effective they are. To make the most of their time, they only want to do something if they can bring real value to it. And they measure that value by the quality and quantity of their contributions.

3. They focus on strengths, not weaknesses.
Effective executives want to maximize strengths—both their own and those of their coworkers. They understand that spending time trying to improve a weakness rarely yields as much benefit as putting a top strength to work on a well-matched opportunity.

They also understand that even the best executives and employees have weaknesses.

“The idea that there are ‘well-rounded’ people, people who have only strengths and no weaknesses…is a prescription for mediocrity if not for incompetence. Strong people always have strong weaknesses too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys. And no one is strong in many areas.”

4. They direct their time to areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.
Effective executives don’t just want to get things done; they want to get the right things done. They consciously choose to spend time doing things that will yield the best, most important results. And those results are a lot more important to them than just being “busy.”

5. They understand the importance of having uninterrupted, focused time.
A scattered, multi-tasking executive is not an effective executive. Important work deserves focused time without interruption. As Drucker describes it,

“To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, therefore needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks…To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours…To write a report may, for instance, require six or eight hours, at least for the first draft. It is pointless to give seven hours to the task by spending fifteen minutes twice a day for three weeks. All one has at the end is blank paper with some doodles on it.”

A high school student may not be a business titan. But you make decisions every day about what to do and how to do it. If you can be effective when you make those choices, you are also far more likely to be successful.

Counselors: Try more “Here’s why…”

Counselors guiding students through the college admissions process have to spend a lot of time discussing what, when, and how to do things.

Here’s what you should do this summer…

Here’s when you should sit for the SAT…

Here’s how to plan a college visit…

But if you want your students to be even more engaged, if possible, spend a little less time on the what, when, and how, and a little more time on the why.

Based on what you’ve told me, here’s why a part-time job sounds like the option that would be best for you this summer.

Here’s why taking the SAT this spring will help you make better future testing decisions without sacrificing your time with the swim team…

Here’s why I think visiting these particular colleges will give you a better sense of other schools to potentially add to your list…

Over time, the whys can become so obvious to counselors that we see them as a given. And with both students and parents asking us what, when, and how to do things, we learn that just answering their questions often sends them away satisfied with our guidance.

But families going through this process can become jaded, often feeling like their every decision is measured only by whether or not it satisfied a stated or implied requirement that makes them more college competitive.

That’s what makes the whys so important. The whys rarely stop at, “Because that’s what College X wants.” Whys get to the heart of what’s best for each particular student, not just in terms of getting them closer to college, but also in helping them make decisions that will keep them happy, productive, and engaged. Whys remind students that their high school years shouldn’t only be about satisfying colleges, and that there is almost always some real purpose behind all this college prep.

If you want to help your students be more engaged, try to send them away from your next meeting not just clear about “Here’s what I’m going to do,” but also “Here’s why I’m going to do it.”

Can seniors afford to slack off?

I’ve gotten several requests from parent readers to pen a post about the importance of keeping senior year grades up. The last time I touched on this topic, today’s seniors were just high school freshmen. So here’s the link to that past post, Seniors: Keep up the good work, which explains how maintaining your academic performance can help you get admitted, and then stay admitted.

I recognize, too, that many high-achieving seniors have had their feet on the academic and extracurricular gas pedals for years at a pace that really would be unsustainable for most adults. Rising before 7, going to school all day, doing activities in the afternoon, and studying until past midnight—it can take a physical, mental, and emotional toll. If that sounds like a familiar pattern, please remember a few things that I hope you’ll find encouraging.

First, this type of demanding schedule is primarily a high school phenomenon. College will not be like this. Most jobs are not like this. That sentiment may not bring immediate relief. But difficult circumstances are easier to bear when you know they are temporary.

The ambition and work ethic that you’re demonstrating now are also the surest signs that you’re bound for success in life. These traits will remain in your life even when this level of daily demands does not. Please remember that, no matter which colleges say yes.

And finally, if you really are feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up, please consider speaking with your high school counselor. Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor writes in The Happiness Advantage that “verbalizing the stress and helplessness you are feeling is the first step towards regaining control” [of stress]. And more importantly, cases of anxiety and depression are increasingly common for high school kids. Whether you’re dealing with stress or something more serious, your counselor will be able to help you.

How to give better answers to frequently asked questions

Since entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers sold his company, CD Baby, in 2008 for $22M, he’s been inviting—and happily answering—questions over email about business, productivity, and life. After answering a total of 192,000 emails from 78,000 people, Sivers finally announced at the close of 2016 that he was no longer taking questions. But he left his readers and fans with this FAQ page, which I found interesting for two reasons.

1. His FAQs are about the askers, not the answerer.
Too many FAQ sections are actually just promotional material masquerading as frequently requested answers. I’ve never once had a student ask, “What year was College X founded?” Yet I’ve seen that supposed frequently asked question pop up on multiple colleges’ FAQ sections. The same can be said of “What is Y Corporation’s mission?” or “What accolades has Individual Z received?” Sivers isn’t promoting himself at all—in fact, many of the answers really just decline offers for speaking, investing, interviews, etc. Instead, he seems to have chosen the 21 questions that were in fact the most frequently asked. He may be disappointing a lot of people by not personally replying with an answer, but he’s dramatically increased the likelihood that subsequent visitors will actually find the answer they’re looking for.

2. He tries to leave people better off than when they arrived.
Yes, some of his replies are just no’s—he won’t promote your product, he won’t invest in your idea, he won’t be on your podcast (for now). But far more of his responses include recommendations for his favorite book on that topic, helpful advice, or another resource to leave the visitor better off than they would have been with, “That’s too complicated to answer over email,” or even worse, no answer at all. And while the replies aren’t lengthy, I got the sense that many of those answers might be the same that he’d offer to a close friend or family member. Sivers may not be replying personally to each inquiry. But that FAQ page will allow him to help people for a long time.

If you’re a counselor, administrator, teacher, head of an organization, or anyone else who answers many of the same questions over and over again, you likely can’t just stop answering them and let an FAQ do all the work for you. But you could create an FAQ to cut down on your repeat answer performances, and even to extend your service by not making people wait for a helpful reply that could just as easily and effectively have been handled with an FAQ.

Private counselors, what if you took the most common questions potential clients ask and posted an FAQ with honest, direct, helpful answers? “How are you different from your competition?” could include links to your competitors’ websites along with a recommendation that families interview multiple counselors and choose the one that seems to be the best fit. “What type of students do you work with?” could include information not just about your typical student, but also the types of students you don’t typically serve, along with recommendations for where those kids could find good information or support. Imagine the tone this would set for a visitor who’s just arriving at your website and is already being helped before even speaking with you.

High school counselors, what if you picked the 10-20 questions you get most often and posted the most helpful, honest answers you could write, the type you would share if the parent or student were actually a relative? How well-served would your families feel, and more importantly, how much time might you get back to get other work done?

Teachers, what questions do you answer repeatedly from students and parents? You could even turn your answers into mini articles, like, “The best ways to improve your writing,” or “The five best ways to improve your grade in my class,” or “What to do if you need extra help.” Yes, you could still reply to each inquiry and personalize both the message and the advice. But you could also let the article do the work for you when it comes down to repeating the advice that you’ve shared many times before.

Colleges, I’ve even written a past post on how to improve your own FAQ sections.

Good questions deserve good answers. But it’s almost impossible to answer a particular question with the same attention and care the hundredth time as you did the first five times. When those questions cause your energy and enthusiasm to wane, consider adding that query—and the best possible reply—to your “FAQs.” You’ll give better answers, you’ll leave people better off, and you’ll have more time to answer those personal, nuanced questions that aren’t so frequently asked.

Suggested 2017 activity adjustments

One of the most prevalent symptoms of college admissions mania is overscheduling. Too many kids just have too much to do. And while you can’t decide to stop going to school, and you probably shouldn’t decide to stop studying, it’s possible that some of your activities just aren’t adding much to your life. And if they aren’t adding value for you, they won’t bring value to your college applications.

As you begin 2017, I’d encourage every student, especially those freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who may still be exploring and identifying which activities mean the most to them, to evaluate how you are choosing to spend your time and to consider doing less.

I’ve written extensively about the dangers of overscheduling, and the potential value of quitting. So for those who are new or who weren’t readers when these posts went up on the blog, here are a few suggested reads to get you up to speed.

First, a past post on how to evaluate your activities.

Here’s one that illustrates the college admissions risk of overscheduling, and another to help you identify if you’re too busy being busy.

Here are two posts, here and here, on the potential value of quitting, and a third that encourages you to make sure that the benefits of quitting for you don’t become punishments for other people.

Chosen and done right, your extracurricular activities should be among the most enjoyable parts of high school. But getting there can sometimes mean making adjustments. You don’t always know whether or not an activity will make you happy when you start it. So use this fresh start of 2017 to take a look at what you’re doing and decide if you might benefit from making different—or fewer—choices about what to do.

Five traits that will help you win outside scholarships

Outside scholarships are awards from private companies and foundations rather than from the colleges themselves. They typically require separate applications that can also include essays, letters of recommendation, and even interviews. While the majority of money that helps students pay for college comes from filing a FAFSA and applying for need-based financial aid, every extra monetary boost can help. If you’re applying for outside scholarships, here are five traits to demonstrate if you want to increase your odds of winning.

1. Matchmaking
Like choosing colleges where you’re a good fit, the best way to win scholarships is to apply for those you’re most likely to win. Use a free matching site like (never pay for a scholarship matching service—all that information is available for free). Answer their profile questions as thoroughly as possible to get more accurate matching results. And pay very close attention not just to the eligibility requirements, but also the descriptions of what types of students the organization is looking to honor. For example, a scholarship from the local fire department that’s intended for “a student who’s shown outstanding commitment to their community” is not going to go to someone who participated in just one blood drive. Match your accomplishments, strengths, goals, etc. to the scholarships intended to reward what you have to offer.

2. Passion
I write here often that passion is contagious. An admissions officer—or a scholarship reader—won’t care about what you’re sharing if you don’t care about it yourself. Don’t hide how much you love math, debate, or your church. Don’t restrain yourself from expressing just how much you care about helping the homeless, coaching youth baseball, or restoring old cars. The descriptions of these activities are the “what,” but the feelings behind them are the “why.” And the why—when it’s strong—is where the passion is.

3. Potential
Potential is promise that has not yet been fully realized. And coupled with the appropriate qualifications and passion, it’s an enticing trait for scholarship readers. I’ve written a past post about how to demonstrate potential as you progress through high school. Now that you’re applying for scholarships, use the same post to help you identify examples of potential worth sharing.

4. Ambition
Ambition is the “strong desire to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” The best way to express that ambition in a scholarship application is to focus not just on what you want to achieve, but also what you’re willing to do, and what you’ve already done to get there. Just saying that you want to be the CEO of a corporation someday is not ambition. But expressing that goal, then describing how you want to learn about business through both a major and internships while in college, then illustrating how many business books you’ve already read as a high school student while also working a part-time job and rising through the ranks to become an assistant manager at a local store–that’s ambition. See the difference?

5. Marketability
Outside scholarship providers want to highlight the students they reward (thereby not-so-subtly announcing that the provider has generously provided a scholarship). Presentation matters. Keep your online presence clean. Have a simple, intelligible outgoing message on your phone. If the application requires an interview, don’t show up in yoga pants and flip-flops. I’m not suggesting that outside scholarships go only to those students who look a certain way. But every little bit helps. So while you should always be yourself, and never apologize for that, there’s nothing wrong with bringing the best authentic version of yourself to the scholarship application process.