How to spot a smart person in the room

Here's a good way to spot someone who's smart and engaged.  When the conversation turns to something they don't understand, when there's a term or concept that's unfamiliar to them, that person doesn't sit there and nod his head.  He doesn't pretend to understand when he doesn't.  He doesn't disengage and become less interested just because he's no longer following.  He confidently and politely says,

"I'm sorry.  I was with you until just a second ago.  What does that mean?"

High school teaches you to believe that you should always know the answer.  When you're doing a problem in trig, answering a question on the SAT, or being called on by your Spanish teacher and you don't know the answer, it's bad.  There are points deducted and penalties to pay.

But here's the thing about smart people–they don't always know the answer.  Nobody does.  And how you handle yourself at those times says a lot about you and your desire to learn.

Chris Rock on accountability

I've written posts before about the importance of students accepting responsibility, rather than blaming other people for their mistakes.  Of course, it's not just a good lesson for kids.  It's one of the secrets of successful adults, too.

From comedian Chris Rock while being interviewed on Inside the Actor's Studio:

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It's never the audience's fault.  Never.  Ever, ever, ever.  If the movie's not good, it's my fault.  TV show's not good?  It's my fault.  Any time I'm in front of the audience–I don't care if somebody got shot in the middle of the show–if I can't get the crowd back, it is my fault.  It is my responsibility to rock the house every…single…time.  No matter what."

The quote comes about 5 minutes into this clip.

How Collegewise counselors take it or leave it

Whenever a Collegewise counselor comes across news, a helpful website, or other information she finds useful, we send it to each other in an email with the subject line, “Take it or leave it” (“TIOLI” for short).

Originally Arun’s brainchild, the idea was that whenever one of us came across anything small or big that made our counseling lives a little easier, we’d share it in a “Take it or leave it” email.  TIOLIs remove email pressure.  If I find something interesting, I can share it with impunity.  If you like what I’m sending, great–“take it” and use it.  If you don’t find it interesting, “leave it” and delete it.  No hard feelings…for either of us.

Here’s an example.

Katie went to an Ursinus College info session yesterday.  She came back, did a quick write up about what she learned, and sent us all an email entitled “TIOLI: Ursinus College.”  Now I know that 90% of Ursinus pre-med students with a 3.3 GPA or above get into medical school.  I’ll take it, Katie. Thank you!

Other TIOLIs have shared everything from how we can use our work email (through Google Apps) to send text messages to our students, to an article about how to make your Outlook function better, to “The Dirty Thirty” most common grammatical mistakes, to how to handle the question when a prospect asks how we’re different from the competition.

The most useful part of the TIOLI is that all of our counselors have it at their disposal.  It’s a tool we all use, and it makes it that much easier to share information with each other.  It’s so easy to do.  Ask your colleagues if they’d like to try TIOLIs.  Maybe kick it off with a good take-it-or-leave-it of your own?

So there you go–take it or leave it.

Take a class at Harvard, Stanford or MIT for free

Not many people in the world have ever experienced calculus at MIT.  No surprise there since you had to, well, get into MIT, which almost nobody does.  But now you don't have to get in.  You don't even have to apply.  All you need a computer to experience calculus…MIT style.  Here it is.  35 lectures, all free.  No grades.  No pressure.  Just watch and learn for the fun of it (if calculus is your idea of fun).

Even if you don't like math, c'mon–that's pretty damn cool. 

Academicearth.org features online lectures and full courses from colleges and universities.  There are so many lectures available from the Stanford Business School that there's a good chance I won't get any work done for the next three-and-a-half weeks.

Look at some of the great classes you could take: 

One of the most popular courses at Harvard is a philosophy course called "Justice: What's the right thing to do?"  The professor examines difficult moral dilemmas and then challenges your opinion with new information, tackling subjects like affirmative action and-same sex marriage.  Interested?  Here it is.  12 lectures.  You're taking one of the most popular classes at Harvard.  Free.   

Organic chemistry has dashed the pre-med hopes of countless students who just couldn't survive it.  Why not test drive it at UC Berkeley?  Here it is.  26 lectures, all free.  

Are you a Civil War buff?  Want to take a class at Yale that examines the causes and consequences of the American Civil War?  Here they are.  27 lectures, all free.  

Two things worth noticing here:

1. Now more than ever, you don't need a high GPA, perfect SAT scores or a lot of money to learn about subjects that interest you.  Access to quality education is increasing all the time.   Real learners don't have to go far, or pay a lot, to feed their minds.

2. Who's really more intellectual?  The kid whose parents pay thousands of dollars to send him to a summer school session on an Ivy League campus?  Or the kid who takes history classes at his local community college over the summer, checks out every book on the Civil War from the library, and watches free history lectures like the ones at academicearth.org?

Few qualities are more appealing to colleges than a genuine curiosity and interest in learning.  There are more opportunities to demonstrate that trait now than there ever have been before.

A pep talk for counselors

Whether you're a high school counselor or a private counselor, you've probably experienced some combination of the following stresses:

Not enough time to focus on the admissions part of your job.  Working too many hours.  Too many letters of recommendation to write.  Parents with unrealistic expectations–for their kids, for the college admissions process, or for you.  Kids you want to see succeed who are struggling because they don't have the money or a stable home life.  Too many kids to to help.  Not enough hours to do it.  Not enough recognition for everything that you do.  Not enough sleep.  Too much worry.  Too much pressure.  Wondering if you're doing any good.  Wondering if people appreciate what you're doing.  Wondering how much longer you can do it.  

On those days where you can feel the stress affecting you, when you know you're just not as eager to face the day as you have been in the past, please remember something.

I don't believe there is any job that is more important than helping kids achieve their educational dreams. 

There are other jobs that are just as important–I'm not devaluing the likes of social workers, community organizers or scientist who are trying to cure cancer.  But I do not believe there is a profession that makes more of a difference, that has a bigger impact on kids, families and our society, than helping students find their way to college.   

If you're helping kids realize their college dreams, you never have to go home at night wondering if you did anything worthwhile with your day.  The longer you do it, the more kids there will be who got to college with your help, who found great schools they didn't know about, who better understood the application and financial aid process or were accepted to the college they'd dreamed of attending in part because of help that you gave them. 

And there will be some kids who simply would not have made it to college at all without you.  Kids who never could have done it on their own and didn't have other people to rely on.  Those kids will go on to be college graduates in the world, and they'll be there because of you. 

There are a lot of dedicated counselors out there who work very hard and do it all for the kids.  If you're one of them, thank you.  And keep at it.  It's too important for you not to.

The allure of the unexpected

One of the best ways to keep someone interested in your story is to lead with something unexpected.  This is not an example of that:

"The marching band practices every day after school for two hours.  It's very arduous, but necessary if we want to perfect our formations." 

Nobody would be surprised to learn that. But if you said,

"A polyester band uniform actually doubles in weight when it's wet.  Every time we practice in the rain, I gain 10 pounds for the next two hours."

Now you've got my attention.

When you share something people didn't know yet, it makes them want to know more.  It's like an intellectual itch they need to scratch.  That's what being interesting means–people want to hear and learn more from you.

Of course, there's an art to recognizing what people might be interested to know about and how much they can take.  If you drone on for twenty minutes about how to get to the expert levels in your favorite video game, a non-gamer is going to lose interest.  But if you told me about life as a game tester, when you're paid to do nothing but play video games 8-hours a day, I'd be intrigued because that's something I could never imagine doing.

So when you're writing your college essays, doing a college interview, or even just having a conversation with someone you've just met, get them interested by sharing something they probably wouldn't have guessed.  Give them the unexpected part of the story.

A prescription for over-scheduled kids

A lot of today's high school students are completely over-scheduled with absolutely no free time.  That's hazardous to their mental health as well as to their college admissions chances.

It's easy to spot a kid who's over-scheduled.  It's a teenager who doesn't have any life in her face.  She's tired and stressed out.  She spends all her time doing formal activities and meeting with tutors, making calculated choices based on what she thinks will help her get into college. 

If you ask her what she does for fun, she doesn't have an answer.  She doesn't feel confident about her ability to measure up to expectations–her parents', the colleges' or her own.  She spends a lot of time trying to fix her weaknesses, meeting with math tutors and doing test prep.  

If that sounds like you (or your teen), here are some suggestions to help you reclaim some time.

1.  Every day, reserve an hour of time that is just for you.

This should be a time you get to spend doing something that makes you happy.  And don't you dare use that time to study SAT vocabulary.  This is your time to read US Weekly, or play guitar with nobody watching, or listen to music, or play video games.  I don't care what it is.  Don't justify it to anybody.  Just do it.

2. Cut back on the time you spend trying to fix weaknesses. 

It is absurd to think that anyone including the colleges expects you to be great at everything.  If you're meeting with a guitar teacher because you're not very good at guitar but you really want to be, that's great.  But if you're doing yet another round of test-prep for the SAT because your first three tries aren't in Stanford's range, ditch your SAT tutor and pick up the guitar (or the video game or US Weekly).

3.  Don't measure everything by its potential value to colleges.

Your high school career should be about lots of things, and preparing for college is certainly one of them.  But it should also be about being a regular teenager.  Regularly do things that will in no way help you get into college.  Being productive is a good thing, but scheduling every second of your day trying to please colleges is just unreasonable.

4.  Sleep more.  

I'm serious.  Too many kids talk about how they're sleeping 5 or fewer hours a night.  No good.  You need to sleep to function well, to be happy and to enjoy your life.  If there's just no way you could sleep more and still get everything done, then you need to follow tip #2 above and tip #5 below.

5.  Quit any activities that you don't enjoy and/or don't really care about.

It's better (and less stressful) to do a few things that really matter to you than too many that don't.  If you don't look forward to doing one of your activities and/or it just doesn't mean much to you, quit.  If you're worried that quitting will make you look like, well, a quitter on your college applications, then don't list that activity at all.  Problem solved.   

Bonus suggestion:  If you read these tips and say, "I don't have time for free time and sleeping more," buy "How to Be a High School Superstar" and read pages 55-77 about "How to reduce your homework time by 75%."

What does your outgoing voicemail say?

If you list your cell phone number on your college applications, make sure your outgoing voicemail message is something you'd be comfortable with an admissions officer or, more likely, a college interviewer hearing.  I'm not saying you need to be as formal as a Fortune 500 CEO, but you might want to play it straight and generic for a few months.

On Veteran’s Day…

College applicants, Veterans Day is a good day to remember that you are lucky to be living in a country that has the strongest and most accessible system of higher education in the world, a country that encourages anyone who wants to do so to go to college, a country where you get to decide for yourself what direction you want your life to take when you become a legal adult. 

If your biggest worry is that you might not get into your first choice college, you're very, very fortunate.  We all are.

Don’t take anonymous college essay advice

You wouldn't just walk up to a random stranger on the street and ask him what you should write your college essay about.  But a lot of kids are actually doing the online version of that.

Pick a college, any college with an essay prompt on the application.  Type that prompt into Google and you'll find students who…

1)  …have posted their essays to open forums and are seeking feedback.

2)  …are asking for suggestions about what to write.

When you open up your college essays to the world wide web like this, you have no idea who's giving you the advice.  It could be a kid, a parent, or some troll who just lurks on the forums.  And whoever it is may or may not have the slightest idea what they're talking about.

There are plenty of people you can go to for advice who not only know know about college essays, but who also have a vested interest in seeing you succeed.  Ask your counselor.  Ask your English teacher.  Ask your older brother or sister who's already in college.  Ask a professional, someone who will be accountable for the advice. 

But don't take college essay advice from a stranger.