Rewards, or punishments?

Parents and counselors who are encouraging teens to make application progress might be interested in a recent study shared in this Harvard Business Review piece, which showed that our brains are more likely to take action to pursue a reward than they are to avoid a punishment.

“Neuroscience suggests that when it comes to motivating action (for example, getting people to work longer hours or producing star reports), rewards may be more effective than punishments…When we expect something good, our brain initiates a ‘go’ signal. This signal is triggered by dopaminergic neurons deep in the mid-brain that move up through the brain to the motor cortex, which controls action. In contrast, to avoid bad things — poison, deep waters, untrustworthy people — we usually simply need to stay put, to not reach out. So our brain has evolved to accommodate an environment in which often (though not always) the best way to not get hurt is to avoid action altogether. When we anticipate something bad, our brain triggers a ‘no go’ signal.”

Instead of focusing on the future punishments that come with failing to make enough progress—stress, encroaching deadlines, the possible loss of admissions advantages at some colleges, etc.—try focusing on the rewards of making deliberate, thoughtful progress, like completing applications long before friends do, enjoying application-free winter holidays, and gaining admissions advantages at schools that evaluate applications on a rolling basis.

It’s not likely to work like a magic wand. But the college admissions process can always use more positivity. If doing so actually motivates the students immersed in it to dig in and make more progress, that’s a bonus in my book.

Monday Morning Q&A: Send test scores now, or later?

Bernice asks:

Should I wait until my SAT or ACT scores arrive before I apply to the top colleges of my choice? Or should I go ahead and apply?

This is a good question, Bernice, one that has both simple and more complex versions of the answer. The simple version is to go ahead and apply. Most colleges will allow you to not only list whatever scores you have, but also list the dates you intend to take future tests. They’ll wait to make a decision until they have all the required test scores, and delaying your application process usually isn’t a good strategy.

But the more complex and college counseling-nuanced version of the answer requires more information, including:

  • Where are you applying?
  • Are you applying to an early action or early decision program?
  • Did you take the tests already? If so, how many times and what are your scores?
  • When do you plan on (re)taking the exam(s)?

So here’s what I recommend you do:

1. Consult the websites of each of your chosen colleges and find out two things—what tests are required, and by what dates do they recommend taking tests and sending scores?

2. Register for the test(s) soon if you haven’t done so already. Fall test dates are popular and you don’t want your preferred location to fill up.

3. Meet with your high school counselor, share your findings, and get her thoughts about whether or not to apply before you have test scores on file.

4. In the meantime, work on your applications. Whether or not you wait to file them is a separate decision from whether or not you start (and complete!) them.

If all of this gets too complex, or if you can’t get the information you need, play it safe and go with the simple answer I shared above—apply now and send your test scores as soon as you have them. You can’t get into college if you don’t submit completed applications by the deadline, and I’d hate for testing confusion to stop you from getting your applications filed on time.

Thanks for the question, Bernice. I’ll answer a different one next Monday. Interested readers can submit their own question here.

It’s FAFSA time

For students applying to begin college in the fall of 2018, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) becomes available today. The FAFSA is the gateway to all available need-based financial aid, and every student applying to college should file one. If you believe you’re an exception, maybe because you don’t think you’ll get aid or you’re worried that filing a FAFSA will hurt your chances of admission, please read this past post and the links within, which I hope will convince you otherwise.

Colleges set their own deadlines for FAFSA submissions, but prevailing financial aid wisdom dictates that earlier is better. No need to pull three consecutive all-nighters just to file before the end of the week. But try not to make one of your New Year’s resolutions for 2018 to “File FAFSA!” either.

If you’re not yet sure exactly where you’re applying, that’s OK. Get to work on the form anyway. You can always add or delete schools later.

And finally, please remember that while just about all colleges require the FAFSA to be considered for aid, some colleges require additional forms, too. Much as you should pore over the requirements for admission (letters of rec, test scores, essays, etc.), you’ll also want to review the financial aid section of each of your chosen colleges’ websites to note what forms are required and by what dates they need to be submitted.

Getting started as a private counselor

People often ask our Collegewise counselors about the best way to get started as a private counselor. Here’s a recent podcast, and some past posts of mine, that should help any committed professional take productive first steps to get started.

On this 1-hour podcast, marketing expert Seth Godin recently shared the steps he would take if he were starting a new business today. His insight about marketing with—not at—people works very well in an industry like ours where trust is so essential.

Here are a few past posts of mine:

Some advice, here and here, on getting started.

And an early-stage marketing idea can be found here.

My thoughts on certificate programs in college counseling.

Some recommended basics on which to build your business.

And finally, some advice on how much to charge.

When the race itself is fun

Yesterday morning, I saw three kids racing each other to see who could get to their elementary school first. Big grins, arms flailing, backpacks bouncing up and down—I’m sure the race injected some extra excitement, but none of these kids appeared to be dreading arriving to school. And the second and third place finishers seemed to shrug it off immediately and bound right inside along with the winner. The race itself was the fun part.

I wonder at what point they’ll stop bounding into school and start running a different race?

Who gets into the AP class, who sets the curve, who gets picked for the lead or the editor or the starting position, who gets the best test scores, who gets into an Ivy League school, etc. That race isn’t nearly as fun. And at many schools, the kids who don’t finish first feel like they’ve let themselves and their families down.

None of us gets to enjoy the carefree days of childhood forever. And I’ve never had a problem with high school kids experiencing work, responsibility, and even the occasional stress that comes along with it. We’re preparing them for life, after all.

But I’d like to believe there’s a way for even high school kids to enjoy school, learning, activities, and preparing for college in such a way that they enjoy just running the race. Praising effort over achievement, focusing on strengths instead of fixing weaknesses, and reminding kids that what they do while they’re in college will matter much more than whether or not that college is a prestigious one—those messages encourage kids to enjoy the race itself and to keep running.

And those are the kids who will actually perform better when the academic, work, or other stress-related chips are down.

Kids are more likely to keep racing if the adults in their lives make the race itself the fun part.

Everyone is homeschooled

According to this KQED piece, in an effort to move the focus away from relentless achievement alone, some high schools, including one in the notoriously driven Silicon Valley, are implementing advisory programs where small groups of students meet with an adult mentor (often a teacher) to help students foster good relationships and find a sense of purpose in their lives.

As the article says,

“Many high school students go through four years of school doing exactly what they are told to do. The work often feels divorced from the real world — a prescriptive set of ‘shoulds’ that adults say will lead to a happy life. But for many students, the end goal of all that work — college or a career — is a hazy future, not a tangible one.”

I think the programs sound fantastic and would love to see them gain popularity. But I couldn’t help but think that these lessons really need to be taught at home.

Parents, if you were to tally the amount of time you spend talking with your kids about all-things-college-admissions—grades, test scores, achievement, tutors, admissions advantages, etc.—and compare that total to how much time you spend talking with them about what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what’s happening in their lives, what they want for themselves, etc.—which area of discussion is dominating your time?

Many parents will point out that teens aren’t inclined to just pour their souls out to their parents. Fair point. But you’re the adult, and you’re their parent. You’re setting the tone for what’s really important by what you choose to focus on and talk about, whether or not they respond immediately.

Many schools just don’t have the resources to allocate to programs like this, and even more teachers have a hard enough job without also assigning them responsibility to teach our kids what’s really important in life. I wish both of those observations weren’t true, and I think it’s long past time for a bigger discussion about what schools should actually be responsible for and how we can better support teachers to actually make the impact they desperately want to make. But whether or not administrators bring this kind of change to your school system, as parents, you can make fast and lasting changes in your home school.

Looking back from the future

Bob Sutton is a professor of management at Stanford and the author of “The A**hole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt.” And while the book is pitched toward helping you deal with difficult people, one of the techniques, shared in this 90-second video (includes colorful language –“viewer discretion advised,” as they say), can help you get through any difficult situation or period, whether or not a jerk is responsible for causing it. It’s called “Temporal Distance” and it works like this: When you’re going through a difficult or stressful time, imagine it’s one day later, then one week later, then one year later. Eventually, what you’re facing right now isn’t quite so upsetting. Looking back from the future makes today seem manageable.

I will admit that the idea struck me as hokey when presented as doing time travel in your mind. But then I realized it’s actually not at all unlike what I’ve recommended in many posts, two examples of which are here and here.

If you’re the type who likes to dig into the research (I am not), here’s a detailed study from UC Berkeley on the effects of Temporal Distance.

For students and parents navigating your way through the college admissions process, remember that the C on the exam, the test score that won’t budge, and so many other things that feel so important today just won’t matter when you’re looking back from the future.

On purpose

There are some things you do (almost) every day. Brushing your teeth. Taking a shower. Checking your email or messages. There’s no debating whether or not you have time, no waiting for the right circumstance or opportunity. At some point, you just made a decision that this was something important enough to do every day. You started by doing it on purpose, but over time, it just became a habit.

On purpose works for lots of other things, too. What if you made the choice this week to:

Raise your hand and contribute to an in-class discussion at least once per day.
Spend 15 minutes a day learning more about something that interests you.
Initiate a project for your club or organization.
Ask a teacher for help when you need it.
Turn off your phone while you are studying.
Express your thanks to someone who deserves it.
Put 10% of your money into a savings account.
Stop doing one thing that’s no longer making you happier, smarter, or more productive.
Start doing one thing that will make you happier, smarter, or more productive.
Learn more about a college your counselor says will likely admit you.

At some point, you won’t have to remind yourself. You won’t have to find the time. You won’t have to do it like you’re checking an item off your day’s to-do list. It will just be a habit.

Most good habits start by doing something on purpose.

Monday morning Q&A: How many colleges to apply to?

Kathryn asks:

The number of colleges that guidance counselors at our high school recommend students apply to has risen over the last decade – almost at the same pace as college tuition. This year they’re recommending students apply to 8-10 colleges. That number doesn’t seem unusual in our area (outside Boston). If the increasing number isn’t just specific to our area, why is this happening? Our family has theories and frustrations, since we have a student who can’t find 8 colleges that he wants to apply to.

You’re right, Kathryn—it’s happening, and not just in your area. There are a lot of reasons, but here are the three that are really driving that change. In no particular order:

1. Submitting multiple applications has gotten easier.
I completed my college applications using a typewriter. Then came online applications. Then came the Common Application, which allows students to complete one application and submit it to multiple colleges. Adding just 1, 2, or 8 more no longer necessarily requires a comparable addition in time and energy required to do so.

2. Lottery logic runs rampant.
Many students, particularly those who want to attend the most prestigious colleges, use lottery logic and assume that the more schools they apply to, the better their chances of getting in. But as I’ve written before, that logic doesn’t work. Harvard’s Dean of Admissions explained the flawed approach of applying to 20 highly selective colleges in a bid to improve your odds by using the analogy of an archer standing 1000 feet away from the target. His words: “The fallacy is to think that if you apply to all 20 schools that you will broaden the bull’s eye…all a student has done is drawn a circle around the pea-size target 20 times.”

3. Fear.
There was once a time when a student could apply to just 2-3 colleges and feel confident they’d be admitted to one. With over 2,000 colleges in the country, that’s still a viable approach, but not for the most popular colleges. Add in all the surrounding pressure, anxiety, and drama that the admissions process creates and you’re left with fear. That fear sounds like:

“What if I don’t get in anywhere?”

“What if I was wrong about the colleges on my list?”

“What if we don’t get financial aid?”

And many families choose to combat that fear by applying to even more colleges.

There’s no universally accepted number of schools students should apply to, but the best way to combat the three behaviors above is to create a balanced college list. Here’s a past post on just how to do that, and another for families who may need help falling in love with less famous colleges.

Thanks for your question, Kathryn. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Updated advice on paying for college

Kalman Chany is a nationally recognized financial aid consultant and the author of Paying for College without Going Broke, a book I’ve consistently recommended since I started Collegewise in 1999. If you’re looking for advice on the best ways to save for college, to get the financial aid you need, and to avoid mistakes that can cost you thousands of dollars, I’ve never come across a single work with better or more thorough advice. He also updates the book every year, and the 2018 version was released last week. It includes line-by-line instructions for completing not only the updated FAFSA with all of its changes for this year, but also the CSS PROFILE application required by many private colleges.

I don’t have a personal or professional connection to the author—I’m just a fan of good advice that helps families, and this book is chock full of it.