Advice to our 17-year-old selves

Every Friday, we pose a voluntary “Social Question” to everyone at Collegewise, something non-work related to help us all learn more about each other. Last week we asked, “If you could give advice to the 17-year-old version of yourself, what would you say?” I decided to share many of the responses here (anonymously) for two reasons:

First, as adults, it’s easy (and often a relief) to forget what high school was really like, before we’d come into our own, found our way, and made sense of everything with the benefit of hindsight. But transporting ourselves back to this time, and imagining how we’d advise our 17-year-old selves, conjured up all those memories of a period that often felt both uncertain and uncomfortable. Occasionally reconnecting with that feeling makes us better at our jobs as we try to help teenagers get where they want to go next.

And I thought high school readers might appreciate and benefit from the responses, especially given they come from confident, happy, successful professionals who really do understand what it’s like to be where you are today.

Here are the responses:

It’s okay not to know who you are yet. You’ll find your people in about ten years and it’s okay to wait.

Don’t worry. Relax. You don’t have to be great at everything. College and life beyond are going to be better than you ever imagined.

RELAX. And don’t be so mean to your parents. They actually do know what they are talking about, and in a few short years you’ll completely respect them for all of their sacrifices. Also, that Marilyn Monroe style prom dress you fought with your mom about actually looks awful on you!

Stop stressing so damn much. You don’t have to be perfect. You’re going to screw up sometimes, but it’s all going to turn out fine.

Ask people/grownups who are doing things I might want to do how they got there, whether they think the same thing might work for me. And be skeptical of those selling you a dream.

Take risks, be smart, but have fun!

It’ll all be OK. Also, stop saying you’re “bad at math and science.”

Hang in there. Your people are out there, and you’ll find a lot of them in college! You won’t ever be cool, and that will always be okay. Don’t spend so much time stressing and “efforting” over things–nobody has as much control as they’d like to think, and that includes you. And keep doing things that bring you joy, not following “shoulds” from other people. Those “shoulds” will rarely be along the right path for you.

That was a painful time of my life, so I would tell the younger me that life is so very much better after high school and that I would develop the ability to connect in very real ways with other people as I got older.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Chill out. You’ll figure it out eventually and you don’t need to stress as much. Also, double major and join the equestrian team in college.

High school might feel like trying to fit into one (or, if you’re lucky, two) of a handful of predetermined boxes. But college will be alllllll about creating a mold just for yourself.

You are smart and learning can be fun. You will one day master pre-calc, but then forget everything about it five years later and it won’t matter. Also, you should eat more pizza.

When admissions obsession mirrors addiction

At first glance, some might say that comparing an obsession with an Ivy League education to an addiction to a prescription pain killer is a tad alarmist. But a full read of Brennan Barnard’s latest piece, “Education’s Opiates: Prescribing Selective Colleges,” reveals that in many communities, the anxiety around college admissions is becoming a very real physical and mental health hazard. And I particularly appreciated his recommendation that parents pledge to prohibit the following harmful teen behaviors in their house (the links are also from the article):

  • Unchecked perfectionism
  • Diminished sleep and reliance on energy drinks
  • Over-involvement and thoughtless resume building
  • Crushing course loads
  • The absence of purposeless play
  • A culture of admissions anxiety
  • Imposition of our own aspirations on our children’s futures

How to save if college is not a sure thing

Saving for college is usually one of those just-plain-good-sense things to do, not unlike exercising or reducing your midnight servings of Oreos. And the prevailing wisdom from every reputable college financial planner I’ve come across is to save that money in a 529 plan due to the favorable rate of return and the minimal impact on your financial aid eligibility.

But you’ll incur a tax penalty if you pull that money out of a 529 plan to pay for non-approved expenses. So what should you do if you’re not sure of your child’s college future? Should you continue to rely on the 529 plan and run the risk of penalties, or take a different savings route that would leave more cash on hand if college doesn’t pan out, but likely cost you in financial aid if college comes to fruition?

The short answer, according to this article, is to take the 529 plan off the table only if you are sure your child won’t attend college. Otherwise, keep saving in your 529 plan.

If you’re interested in the math behind the recommendation, the article lays it out nicely. But this question of the 529’s viability for kids who may or may not be college bound was a new one for me, and one that seemed worth sharing here.

On purpose

When you show up, who and what do people get?

When you arrive to class, punch in for your part-time job, or show up at practice for soccer or band or debate, what happens? Are you the one who shows up on time, who does the little things without being asked, and who finds ways to make the time and the experience better for all involved?

Are you reliable? Can you be trusted? Do you always find a way to come through? Or are you the one who rarely steps up, who seems disengaged, or who accepts the opportunity but then always has an excuse why it never got done right?

None of us can or have to be perfect. Some days will be better than others–at school, at work, on the field or the court or the stage. That’s part of learning and growing.

But every time you show up, you’re creating a reputation. You’re saying to people, “Here’s what you can expect from me.” So we get to make a choice. We can let that reputation make itself and hope for the best. Or we can decide what we want our reputation to be and go deliver it.

I’m not talking about creating a fake persona—people will see through that. I’m talking about conscientiously deciding what behaviors you’re willing to engage day-to-day to create a reputation that will make you proud.

Your reputation is created either way. Why not make yours on purpose?

How counselors can help the kids who need it most

One of the many reasons I come back to high school counselor extraordinaire Patrick O’Connor’s regular advice columns for counselors is because he reminds his readers that while the over-scheduled but well-resourced student population has their struggles, they’re not the only kids we need to be worrying about. And in fact, there are students whose home lives are so untenable that a summer without school isn’t a relief, but a seasonal suspension of their safe place to go. And once again, O’Connor comes through with great advice for counselors on the front lines with these students in his latest piece, “Summer Help for the Kids Who Need it Most.”

Does it pass the champagne test?

Making changes can be difficult, even when the changes are good. Getting better grades, exercising regularly, spending more time with your family—the rational knowledge that the change would benefit us often isn’t enough to carry us to our desired result. That’s why so many New Year’s Resolutions start with vigor in January, fall apart in February, and re-appear on the next resolution list the following year. So why is it so hard to create these good changes? Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard sets out to answer that question. And one of their recommendations that stuck with me is to ask the following question about any change you’re trying to make: Does it pass the champagne test?

The champagne test is simple. Is your destination clear enough that when you (or your team, business, organization, etc.) get there, people will know to crack the bottle of champagne and celebrate? I’m sure I don’t need to explain this, but just in case (as this is a blog frequented by readers too young to drink legally), the recommendation has nothing to do with actual champagne (although parents, knock yourselves out!). It’s entirely about identifying a moment when you’ve reached your goal. Is it clear? Will you know?

“Get in better shape this summer” doesn’t pass the champagne test. But, “Run a 10K by the end of the summer” is very clear. You know when you’ve crossed the literal and figurative finish line.

“Get going on college applications?” No clear passing of the champagne test. But, “Finish my college applications before Thanksgiving” certainly does.

“Improve communication for our counseling department” leaves it open to interpretation what “improving communication” actually means. But, “By January 1, hold six all-staff meetings to solicit new ideas” makes it clear when it’s time to celebrate.

It’s far from the only recommendation in the book. In fact, they present an entire system to make any difficult change, personal or professional. But the champagne test is easy to understand and to implement whether or not you’ve read the book. And if you use it successfully, you’ll know exactly when to celebrate.

Don’t put essay pressure on your summer plans

If you’re a senior applying to college this fall, you may already have a plan in place to write your college essay about an upcoming summer event: work, travel, a summer program or other experience where you’re sure to come back with good stories. But preemptively choosing a college essay topic on an experience that hasn’t happened yet is not an approach I recommend.

Your summer plans may eventually serve up great fodder for college essays. But that’s still to be determined. The truth is that some perfectly enjoyable and rewarding experiences don’t translate into great stories for college essays. Some summer stories reveal a lot more about the subject than they do about the writer. Some summer stories repeat the same experience shared by many other applicants in their college essays. Some summer stories simply repeat information that’s already listed on the application. You have every reason to be excited about what’s to come, and those experiences will almost certainly earn a proud spot when they’re listed on your application. But it’s too soon to tell if they’ll give you what you need to include that experience in one of your application essays.

I’ve seen too many students (or their parents) who get preemptively locked on plans to write about an experience yet to take place only to completely lose their essay objectivity on the other side of that experience. In college essay terms, they force it. They want so badly for the summer they planned for and are now proud of to work as a story that they inject all kinds of deep meaning that wasn’t there at the time. And essays like that always feel more forced than fresh.

Don’t second guess your choices of what to do this summer—this isn’t an indictment of those plans. In fact, lean into them! You made these plans for a reason, so go make the most of—and take the most from—them. But don’t put pressure on yourself or your plans to deliver a compelling college essay, too.

Give it time. Stay open to all essay possibilities. Then when it’s time to choose your topics, you’ll have a fresh perspective on both recent and past experiences without having to contend with any preemptive essay pressure.

What you do, or how you do it?

Sometimes businesses, organizations, or schools are resistant to change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s a good litmus test to check if that resistance is coming from a good place.

“This is what we’ve always done” is often the resistance to good change. It’s the theme song of status quo, a way of saying that it’s easier to just repeat what you’ve done than it is to innovate and get better.

But, “This is how we do things” can often be the resistance to bad change, a way of drawing a line, refusing to compromise, and sticking to what’s right rather than changing to what’s easy or profitable. It’s resistance worth being proud of.

When you sense the resistance to change, ask if that resistance is looking to preserve what you do, or how you do it.

And then ask if you’re proud of the answer.

Worth remembering today

I hope we all take this holiday not just to rest and recharge, but also to remember the young men and women who joined the armed forces and then never had the opportunity to go to college, find their career, get married, or watch their kids do any of those things.

We enjoy not just the finest, but also the most open and accessible system of higher education in the world. The process of finding, applying, and getting accepted might occasionally be stressful or disappointing. But nothing that happens as part of the process qualifies as a tragedy.

Today, let’s take a minute to appreciate all the good we have in front of us, and to remember the sacrifice of those who fought to preserve that future.

Accept both realities

I suspect that the headline of a recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Two Most Important College-Admissions Criteria Now Mean Less,” will draw plenty of eager eyes from students and parents looking to decode the process and strategize their way to an offer of admission. And unfortunately, they’ll likely ignore these passages that reveal two important college admissions realities.

“When [highly selective] schools with anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand slots are picking from tens of thousands of applicants, a good amount of deciding who gets in is going to be arbitrary.”

It’s not because the process is rigged or fundamentally unjust. It’s just reached the point where there are too many students with top (or perfect) grades and test scores to offer admission on meritocracy alone.

But there’s good news.

Eighty percent of American colleges accept more than half of their applicants, but at the country’s most selective schools, there is something of a merit crisis: As test scores and GPAs hold less sway, admissions offices are searching for other, inevitably more subjective metrics.”


“More than 1,000 colleges nationwide have come to a similar conclusion about standardized tests, having dropped them as an admissions requirement. That number includes even some selective campuses such as George Washington, Wake Forest, and Wesleyan.”

Reality #1: There is no magic formula for admission to highly selective colleges, including performing with perfection both in and out of the classroom. Not many students can achieve at that level in high school. But those who do all seem to apply to the same colleges.

Reality #2: Most of the colleges in this country admit the majority of their applicants. All that bad news is limited to a fairly short list of schools.

You’ll enjoy a more successful, less stressful college application process if you accept both realities.