Bite-sized chunks

Any big, long-running project, from college applications to a professional’s initiative at work, can feel overwhelming at the start. An as yet undefined but probably long list of to-dos. Difficult choices to be made. A feeling of urgency without a clear triaging of priorities. It can be enough to paralyze you to inaction or to send you scrambling to start something just to enjoy immediate progress.

One approach is to make an exhaustive list of everything that will need to happen and then simply start with the first item. If that’s worked for you in the past, don’t abandon a successful strategy.

But another approach is to ignore the totality of to-dos and instead answer this question:

What would make you happy to accomplish in ____ weeks?

The number of weeks depends on the length of the project. You can’t spend five weeks taking the first steps of a project that’s due in six. And this approach doesn’t work for projects due much sooner than they are later.

But imagine the college applicant who said in early August, “Four weeks from now, I’d be very happy to have finalized my college list to show my counselor, and to have a final draft of my Common App essay.”

Now you’ve bitten off a bite-sized chunk of a much bigger project. But more importantly, you’ve set yourself up to make reasonable progress while simultaneously retaining some sense of control of your time, task and technique.

Every project can be broken into bite-sized chunks. If you’re unsure where to start, decide on how much you can bite off–and finish–in a short period of time.

How, not who

I’ve heard the conversation-starter, “Who would play you in a movie about your life?” But for parents of kids going through the college admissions process, I think it’s more compelling to consider the how, not the who.

If a movie were made that accurately depicted your words, your actions, your relationship with your student, and all of the associated outcomes as pertaining to the college admissions process, how would your actor of choice portray you?

Would your character make college admissions the focal point of family conversations? Would they prioritize the outcomes above all else? Would they step in and take over, making decisions or filling out applications or revising (or even outright writing) essays themselves?

Would they be portrayed as someone who was putting their needs (from social pressure to parental pride) ahead of their student’s needs?

Or would they be portrayed as someone who decided their most important job was to just be the parent of a college applicant? Would they be the parent who understood this was not their process and that all the adverse pressures were happening to their kid, not to them? Would they be a supportive guide, offering opinions and encouragement when necessary without overstepping and taking over?

And whatever your answer, how would you feel watching how you were portrayed? Would you be proud, or secretly wish the script and the actor hadn’t captured you so completely?

As parents, we’re on stage all the time. Our kids are watching, listening, and learning from what we say and do. But it can sometimes be difficult to evaluate our own behaviors, especially as they relate to our own families. We and they are too close to the action.

Sometimes it helps to step outside and consider the ramifications of what we’re doing. And one way to do that is to imagine this time in your life on film. Sure, it’s fun to think about who would play us. But it’s more thought provoking to consider how they’d do it.

Answer the question

My wife has learned the hard way that I am not a good viewing partner during televised presidential debates. Ten minutes is all I need to launch into the diatribe she knows is coming, all leading to the inevitable outcome when I get too frustrated to continue. This isn’t aimed at one particular side of the aisle—politically, I’m an equal opportunity critic around this one pet peeve.

Just answer the question.

Somewhere in the history of political debate prep, consultants decided that their candidates needed talking points paired with seemingly related anecdotes that must be wedged into the conversation at all costs. Yes, the degree and the frequency varies from candidate to candidate. It might even vary from party to party depending on the issue. But I can’t remember a presidential debate in my adult lifetime when I didn’t wish aloud at least once, “Why don’t they just answer the damn question?!”

Ignoring the question for the sake of injecting your preferred answer is akin to saying: “What I want to talk about is more important than what you want to know.” And for some questions, that leaves viewers very well informed about what a candidate wanted to say, but unable to decipher what a candidate would actually do.

Students often make the same mistake in their college applications.

Some students decide preemptively what their own talking points will be in their application. That’s not a bad strategy. It’s your application, after all. If it’s important to you, the college will almost certainly want to know about it.

But you have to find the right opportunity to share it. And it doesn’t help your admission campaign to ignore the question being asked.

An essay prompt that asks you to describe a time you failed or made a mistake, and to explain what you learned from it, is not an invitation to tell your admissions readers about an impressive accomplishment. Example: “I didn’t prepare as well as I should have for my audition, so imagine my surprise when I was selected to be the lead in the school play!” Failure is a part of life, particularly for successful people who put themselves in failure’s path. A thinly veiled effort to wedge in an accomplishment might tell them what you wanted to share, but it doesn’t tell them what they really wanted to know. That’s the disconnect that occurs when you don’t answer the question.

Colleges spend a considerable amount of time crafting, debating, and refining their applications. Every question has a purpose. Thoughtfully consider, revise, and polish your answer? Yes. But clear and compelling responses always start by answering the question.

Earlier vs. faster vs. better

Writing a blog that dispenses advice about a ritual that repeats annually, like the college admissions process, means that while some readers have been here (and part of the process) before, some are going through this for the first time. The choice to write new material for a returning audience or to rehash old messaging that’s fresh for the new audience is an interesting balance, one that I may not always get right.

But as the Common App went live this week in what’s become an annual signal of the college admissions kickoff, I’d like to return again to an old message, and a few past posts to help this year’s applicants get off on the right application foot.

Extreme approaches work against you in the college admissions process, especially around time management. Procrastinating until the deadline forces you into application submission is a terrible strategy that will increase your anxiety, decrease the quality of the application, and perpetuate the feeling for the entire family that this is a process to be survived, not enjoyed.

But efforts to combat that procrastination shouldn’t cause you to overcorrect, either. Thoughtful applications and essays need time for reflection and revision. There’s no reason for any applicant to already feel like they’ve fallen behind. August is a great time to start because you’re so ahead of the curve, not because you’re already behind it.

Here are two past posts, one touting the benefits of starting early and another reminding you that too fast is just as ineffective as too late.

The learning opportunity

I always appreciate when a press entity or industry publication features an article with a collection of advice from admissions officers or even the directors of those offices. I’ve written many times before about the importance of seeking and taking college admissions advice from the right sources. And admissions officers share the top of that desirability list with a student’s high school counselor.

But editing and space considerations can render some of that advice open to misinterpretation. Tidbits like “Clearly express your interest in the college” is fundamentally good advice that’s often flawed in practice. For example, some families will take that to mean they should spend an exorbitant amount of money to visit all of their colleges, but no admissions officer I’ve ever met would recommend a family end up in college-related travel debt at all, much less before the student has even applied.

Not surprisingly for regularly readers, Brennen Barnard’s latest Forbes piece, “Admission Deans Share Tips For College Applications,” reads like an article that was curated by an expert of Barnard’s caliber. It’s full of clear, sound, and easy-to-follow guidance that happens to be arriving at the perfect time.

But readers still need to use the advice responsibly, as some applicants will allow confirmation bias to get in the way of the intended advice. For example, if a family is determined to send unsolicited extra letters of recommendation or press clippings or copies of awards, they can find a way to substantiate that inclination with the article’s advice to “Go the extra mile.” And inclinations like that will work against you in this process.

Please read the examples that accompany advice like that. Don’t ignore the fact that an equally knowledgeable admissions officer in the article also offers the advice, “Don’t be redundant,” which is exactly what unsolicited materials often lead you to be. When you take in the reasoning and the examples of how and why to employ the advice, it’s very clear what’s being recommended and what’s being discouraged. But you’ll need to read closely and openly enough to take in the advice as they intend it to be taken, not as you wish it could be interpreted.

If you appreciate Barnard’s articles as much as I do, you might be interested in his forthcoming book, authored with former Georgia Tech Director of Admissions Rick Clark, The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, scheduled to be released September 19, 2019.

It can be difficult to slog through the clutter of admissions advice, especially when dished out unsolicited from sources who lack the expertise. But when it arrives from experts who have no agenda other than to help families make sound, reasonable college planning decisions, take them up on the learning opportunity.

How to beat cell phone distraction

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of six books ranging from study skills tips for high school and college students to the role intense focus plays in producing great work, and most recently, the New York Times bestseller Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. In this 2 ½ minute video interview with Dan Pink, Newport shares three tips to prevent our phones from becoming a distraction.

While I know very few adults my age or younger who would not benefit from these tips, the evidence is piling up that technological distractions—along with the accompanying social pressures—are having significantly detrimental effects on teens in the form of diminished attention spans, altered cognitive development, and increased rates of depression and anxiety.

I can imagine people of all ages dismissing some or all of the tips as being impractical or even impossible. But the truth is that constant connectivity is a comparatively new expectation. It wasn’t all that long ago that everyone somehow found a way to survive being unreachable unless they were near a landline. I won’t call for a return to those days as I think it’s safe to say the world has changed. But with the possible exception of those for whom being unreachable could carry serious or tragic implications, just about everyone in the developed world with the means to own a smartphone could probably benefit from allowing it to distract you a little less often.

Who is this really for?

I saw an ad on social media recently that included this language:

“The competitive edge your child is missing…”

“The secret behind taking your child’s soccer game to the next level…”

“See better decision making, improved performance, and more confidence…”

It’s pretty clear this product is designed to appeal to the parent, not the player.

Sure, there could be instances where a young athlete laments their lack of progress or outright asks for this kind of assistance, in which case a parent might feel like they’re just supporting their kid’s interest.

But it would appear from that language that the market for this product is the parent. It’s for the parent who believes the “competitive edge is missing.” It’s for the parent who wants the child’s game raised to the “next level.” It’s for the parent who wants to “see better decision making, improved performance, and more confidence.”

For that particular parent customer, how much agency is their child feeling for his or her own experience? How much additional pressure is being layered on from Mom or Dad? How does it make a young player feel to know that their own parents want to see improved performance in an activity that, no matter how competitive it may be at some levels, is always supposed to be enjoyable at the core?

Before you invest in tutoring, test prep, college counseling, private coaching, or any other product or service purported to help your child, it’s worth asking the question, “Who is this really for?” And if it’s not for them, maybe it’s worth reconsidering the investment.

Even a generous gift doesn’t feel so thoughtful when the giver actually bought it for themselves.

A little love goes a long way

Author, researcher, and speaker Marcus Buckingham has spent his career studying what it takes to feel happy, successful, and engaged at work. And in this podcast interview, he shared a study and a resulting interpretation that I found fascinating.

The less time you spend doing things you love, the more at risk you are of burning out on whatever you’re doing. One study by the Mayo Clinic showed that when doctors spent less than 20% of their time doing things they loved, each percentage point below 20% carried a commensurate percentage point increase in burnout risk.

But data has also shown that spending more than 20% of your time in activities you love doesn’t decrease the burnout risk. 20% is all you need.

Buckingham then extrapolates his argument that work-life balance is a myth. There is no work and life separation, where the good of life must balance the bad of work. There is just life, and work is part of it, as is family, community, etc. Some of it we lean into, others we’re repelled by. Don’t strive for balance. Strive for imbalance. Spend more time leaning into those things that invigorate you, whatever they are. You won’t just increase your resiliency to those things that drain you—you’ll also lead a happier, more fulfilling life.

We’ll never love everything we do. And that’s OK. A little love goes a long way.

Good is what you make of it

I was chatting with an admissions officer from a highly selective university, and when the conversation turned to essays, she shared a pithy way of thinking about topics. With the exception of those that are just flat-out inappropriate or offensive, there are no good topics or bad topics. There are just topics handled well or poorly.

Sports, community service, travel, leadership experience, personal hardship, summer activities—depending on the student, any one of those topics could be a fascinating story that helps the readers understand more about the writer, or a trite, clichéd, just-like-all-the-others essay that will have no positive impact on admission.

How to tell the difference? Here are three our Collegewise students follow:

1. Don’t try to impress the reader.
Trying to guess what they supposedly want to read is the fastest way to write the same thing thousands of other students are writing.

2. Own your story by sharing something only you could tell.
You do that by injecting detail. Someone else could write that their work in student government taught them leadership lessons. What happened in your experience, and what did you learn?

3. If you can’t find enough details for your story, choose a different story.

A good topic is what you make of it.

Reward enough

Jerry Seinfeld’s “Jerry Before Seinfeld” special on Netflix is a great illustration of what true passion looks like.

Seinfeld returns to the stage at the Comedy Store in New York where he first began his career in 1976 and tells the story of growing up dreaming of doing comedy. He took his first steps at age 20 when he moved to Manhattan from his parents’ house in Long Island because the Comedy Store agreed to let him perform a few nights a week…without pay. As he relates:

“I lived in a little apartment on the West Side. And it was very small. It was just 15 feet square. That is not a joke. You know New York apartments are like that. And I brought my little bed from my room to sleep on. That was all I had. I didn’t care. I wasn’t planning on really gettin’ anywhere doing this, by the way. I just loved it and I wanted to do it.”

Students, seek that feeling from your activities.

Too many students measure the worth of an activity by the purported impact on their college applications. Some go as far as to quit things they enjoy just because they aren’t excelling at levels that will allow them to eventually garner awards or recognition for doing so. And that’s one of the worst effects of college admissions pressure. The constant need to crash activities against the mythical admissions measurement destroys the idea that the joy of participating is reward enough.

I’m not telling you to give up goals. If you have a dream to play college basketball or to earn your black belt or work your way up at your part-time job, chase that dream, especially if the pursuit of it makes you happy.

But not everything needs a projected end result to be worth doing.

In 1976, 20-year-old Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t thinking about how he was going to make a full-time living doing comedy, or how to get on television. He just loved getting on stage to make people laugh, and he leapt at any opportunity to do it. The time on stage and the resulting laughs were reward enough.

How much joy are you finding in how you spend your time? Not the ways that you think those involvements will help you get into college, but the fulfillment you spend from just doing what you do? The higher on the scale your answer, the more passion you’re fueling and demonstrating.

The best (and often most objectively impressive) things you can do are those where the joy of doing them is reward enough.