Make them notice

When a student (or that student’s parent) believes that their grades and test scores aren’t a true reflection of who they are, they often express their frustration that the college admissions process doesn’t measure or value the areas where they do excel. That’s when they’ll tell our counselors things like:

I wish they could see how much I love art.

I wish they appreciated how good she is to her younger siblings.

I wish they cared more about what a good friend I am.

Here’s an option to consider—make them notice.

Do you really love art? Enough to pursue it and learn about it and hone your skills? If you take classes after school, if you submit paintings to art competitions, if you teach art classes to kids or find other ways to (figuratively) put your art where your mouth is, the right colleges will notice.

What if you went beyond normal sibling support? I worked with a student once who began her essay, “I’m happiest when I’m in aisle four of the grocery store with two kids and 20 coupons.” To help her working parents, she did regular grocery store runs with her brother and sister, ages 7 and 9. She made an adventure out of it for them, turning the search for ingredients and the coupon-to-item match into a treasure hunt, something they did together that also helped her family. And today, she’s a happy graduate of SMU.

How good are you to your friends? What are you doing to enrich their lives beyond just being there to hang out and talk with? One former Collegewise student learned to cut and style hair. And once she did, none of her friends ever paid a hair salon again. Instead, her friends would make an appointment at her in-home salon (she’d pull a chair from the dining room into the kitchen). And she’d spend the entire day before every formal dance doing hair prep with 10-12 of her friends. She was an average student whose SAT score never cracked 1000. But her essay about her hair history was one of the best we had that year. And she was admitted to 9 out of 12 colleges she applied to.

I’m not suggesting that you have to take any interest, talent, or meaningful piece of your life to a noticeable extreme just to help you get into college. But if you wish colleges would appreciate where you really stand out, make them notice it. Put another way, be so good they can’t ignore you.

A few resolution tips

Here’s a repeat share to get your new year off to a good start. Authors Chip and Dean Heath (who teach at Stanford and Duke respectively) have written several books about how to make better decisions and how to create change that sticks. So they know what they’re talking about when they pen “4 Research-Backed Tips for Sticking to Your New Years Resolutions.”

Here’s a post by author Dan Pink that brings the science of behavioral economics to new year’s resolutions.

Speaking of resolutions and economics, here’s an interesting 30-minute podcast on the Freakonomics blog about why willpower alone is not enough (and what to do instead).

And one final tip of my own. High school students spend enough time being measured, evaluated, and compared. Most are receiving too many messages identifying their (perceived) weaknesses and reminding them (often inaccurately) what they need to change or improve about themselves to get into “good colleges.” If you’re a high school student making new year’s resolutions, please make sure that some or all of those goals lead to things that actually make you–not just colleges or teachers or your parents–happy. There’s nothing wrong with vowing to study for the SATs or get a higher GPA, especially if the pursuit and accomplishment of that goal would make you feel proud and fulfilled. But if your resolutions are things you want to do rather than simply things you think you should do, you’re more likely to achieve and appreciate them. They’re your resolutions, after all.

Have a happy and safe New Year.

When phones are turned off

Students, what would happen in your life if you gave up your phone for one week?

The Today Show recently featured one class of sophomores at Black Hills High School in Washington State who, with some convincing, agreed to give up their phones for one week. And while they all agreed that they were initially bored, anxious, or a combination of both, at week’s end, the students acknowledged that they’d gotten more done and had been more engaged. One student acknowledged that he’d spent more time “actually talking to” his family members. Another remarked with some surprise, “I started reading a book last night.”

Not entirely surprisingly, most gratefully welcomed their phones back into their lives at the experiment’s conclusion. But one student now turns her phone off when doing homework and often leaves it behind when she leaves the house. Another turns his phone over to his parents at night to help resist temptation.

The students also mentioned that while their parents are quick to criticize their teen’s reliance on their phones, from the students’ perspective, those same parents are on their own phones as much as–or even more often than–their kids are.

This might be an interesting family experiment to try. Turn the family phones off for one week. If not for a week, maybe even for a day or two. Just make sure that the parents join in on turning off.

When a (low) GPA doesn’t predict future success

32-year-old Ezra Klein is the editor-in-chief of Vox, a news organization featuring articles, videos, newsletters, and podcasts that combine to reach over 100 million people each month. He was also a columnist at The Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC, and a contributor to Bloomberg. And he was named one of the 50 most powerful people in Washington by GQ.

But as he revealed recently on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, in 2002, Klein was just a kid graduating from high school with a 2.2 GPA and no real idea what he wanted to do with his life.

Klein doesn’t necessarily credit his college with his turnaround that led to such remarkable success. But he is an example of several themes I write about often here:

  • The traditional measures of success in high school did not accurately reflect his capabilities. In fact, he talks about how liberating it was to finally find areas where his strengths could be put to use.
  • He had the curiosity and initiative to pursue what he eventually discovered interested him.
  • He made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves.
  • He bounced back from failures and, in fact, today says, “The things that I wanted and didn’t get are extreme blessings.”

This podcast discussion actually had little to do with politics and far more to do with the path of Klein’s success, where he came from, how he took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, how he bounced back from failure, and who helped him along the way.

Ferriss does start the podcast with three minutes of self-promotion and sponsor pitching, which seems excessive to me. But if you’d like to hear from an honest, open, successful person who wasn’t at the top of his high school class but had a lot to offer and found a way to do so, the interview, which you can find here, is well worth a listen.

It’s not that high school classes and grades aren’t important. In fact, a student who blows off academics as unimportant is eliminating both options and opportunities. That’s a risky strategy, and not one that I’d recommend.

But Klein’s interview is a nice reminder that regardless of your GPA, who you are in high school is not necessarily a mold for who you’ll be or what you’ll become in the future.

Decisions, decisions

If you ask someone on a date and they decline, does that necessarily mean that you couldn’t have been good together? Does it mean that you have nothing to offer or that you just aren’t datable at all? No. It just means that based on the limited information on hand and the imperfect art of dating decisions, they didn’t see the fit that you saw. A confident person has to move on and embrace that clichéd but ultimately true saying that there are plenty of fish in the sea. And being a good, interesting, compelling person just increases the chances of getting a bite later.

What about the working professional who interviews for a position at a different company but doesn’t get the gig? Does that mean they weren’t qualified? Does it mean that if given a chance, they never could have done the job, maybe even as well as or better than the person who got picked? Does it mean they can’t be successful somewhere else? Of course not. Cover letters and resumes and job interviews have their limitations. Unless the company had a trial period where job-seekers could actually try the role for 3-6 months, there’s no way for a person in charge to know with absolute certainty who the right—or wrong—person is. It’s not a perfect system. And the smart, hard-working, accomplished professional has reason to keep the faith that they’ll end up at a place that’s right for them.

College admissions works the same way.

Colleges that require nothing more than transcripts and test scores are close to a meritocracy where the highest numbers win. But all those other schools that look at some combination of other things like activities, awards and honors, essays, letters of rec, or interviews are making more complex decisions. And especially at those schools that have to turn away many more applicants than they accept, deciding who gets a yes and who gets a no is difficult.

Some families think it’s random—a crapshoot at best. It’s not. In fact, admissions officers work very hard to fairly and thoroughly evaluate every applicant. But it’s a complex and sometimes imperfect process. Like dating and job-hunting, decisions that sting can be hard to take. They can feel bitterly personal. But the confident student has to believe enough in herself to know that a denial from one school is not an indictment of her accomplishments, a statement about her potential, or an indicator that she won’t be successful someplace else.

Students who are applying to college, I know it can feel intimidating and even unfair to package up your high school life into applications that could never fully encapsulate you, then leave the decisions of where you get in and don’t to people who have never met you and could never possibly understand everything about what you have to offer.

But you should keep the faith in two things.

First, remember that most admissions officers are, by nature, good people who work very hard to treat applicants with respect. They would much rather admit than deny you. And even when their realities dictate that they have to turn away students who are qualified and could absolutely do the work, they’ll make every effort to give you a fair and thorough read before they reach a decision.

And more importantly, remember that like dating, job searching, and other scenarios where other people make choices about you, they only get to control this one decision. They don’t get to control what you do next, where you do it, or whom you do it with.

Those decisions are the important ones. And those decisions are all yours.

Five unconventional ways to stand out

It’s hard to stand out in any arena doing the same things everyone else is doing. Here are five underutilized ways of standing out to colleges.

1. Learn something.
Learning isn’t limited to your school, or to academic material. Colleges, extension programs, and community centers offer classes in everything from scrapbooking to hip-hop. Books, videos, blogs—there are more places than ever before to learn whatever interests you, often on the cheap and even for free. Actively exploring—and expanding—your interests is a great way to show colleges that you love to learn and can take advantage of opportunities to do so.

2. Teach something.
Everyone is good at something that’s teachable. And like the opportunities to learn, the subjects to teach and the vehicles to do so are more varied than ever before. Offer up your particular expertise at a local community center. Create the go-to YouTube channel for people looking to learn to jazz trumpet. Write a blog on how to build websites, where to find good live bands in town, or how teens can conquer anxiety without prescription drugs. The reach of the internet means that your audience isn’t limited to your geographical location. And if you can really teach someone how to do something, chances are that someone out there in the world will find and appreciate it.

3. Share something.
Offer your basketball skills as a coach for a local youth team. Make videos for a local non-profit. One former Collegewise student who spent her Saturdays volunteering at a homeless shelter also loved photography. During her breaks, she offered to take photos of any families who wanted them, then developed and shared them with the subjects. Many of those families mentioned to her that her photos were the only family photos they owned. If you need a little more inspiration, check out how entrepreneur Derek Sivers shared his way to success using what he called the co-op business model.

4. Change something.
Does something in your club, school, or community need changing, fixing, improving? What if you did the work to make it happen? A small project might be done on your own. But a larger project might require that you recruit and lead other people who agree with you. Whether you pick up trash at the local park, paint the walls at your school, or start an informal support group for students who share the same struggle, colleges—and the world in general—are always looking for people who can make positive change happen.

5. Do something.
Have an idea that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the above categories? Go for it. Ideas are easy. And they’re just a starting point. It’s the doing that’s the hard part. Yes, planning can be important. And the more people you involve, the more important it will be to make promises you can keep. But working like crazy to do something worth doing will always earn you more credit, whether or not it actually works, than not doing anything at all. Find a way to move that idea from something you’re thinking about to something you actually do.

Last chance for Common App help

For seniors putting the finishing touches on your Common Application to submit for January deadlines, don’t miss out on our free Guide to the 2016/17 Common Application. From the essay prompts, to the activity listing, to the additional information section, you can use it for everything from an assist with that one section you’re struggling with to a line-by-line review of the application. Get your free copy here.

Unconventional college interview advice

As I’ve written many times, college interviews are much more conversations than interviews. An interview is one person firing questions at you, waiting for you to answer, then responding with a new question. But college interviewers use questions as a way to not just learn about you, but also get a conversation started. Where it goes from there depends on your answers, your ability to engage, and whether or not you both find some common ground. Put bluntly, a college interview is your chance to prove that you can have a relaxed, mature, interesting conversation with an adult.

So if you want to prepare for your college interviews, don’t rehearse answers. Don’t ask a counselor to do a mock interview so you can practice perfect responses. Instead, find a way to sit with an adult that you don’t know well and actually have a conversation.

One way would be to have your parents connect you with a friend or colleague who would be willing to pitch in and help. But an even better way would be to approach adults and ask on your own. I don’t recommend that you do this with strangers. But you could ask a neighbor, a boss you aren’t exactly chummy with, a teacher whose class you’ve never taken, or even a friend or colleague of your parents that you don’t know (and are willing to approach on your own).

Most adults with good hearts will respond positively to a teenager who says something like,

“I’m trying to get ready for my college interviews, and I think I need to get better at having conversations with adults that I don’t know that well. If I bought you a cup of coffee, would you be willing to just chat with me for 15-20 minutes? I promise I’ll do my best to make interesting conversation—in fact, that’s exactly what I need to practice.”

You might feel really uncomfortable asking. You might feel even more uncomfortable actually going through with it.

But if you stumble, at least you won’t be stumbling in front of an actual college interviewer.

If you did this several times, imagine how much more comfortable you’ll get, and most importantly, how much more confident you’ll feel when you sit down for the real thing.

Do you need an ideal scenario?

If you only work hard when you find the class interesting, or you like the teacher, or the subject is something you can use (or all of the above), how brightly do you shine when you get what you claim to enjoy?

The best strategy is to find a way to do the work you’re capable of doing. But if you insist on limiting your efforts to ideal scenarios, turn those ideal scenarios into remarkable work.

What to keep track of

You change your entire outlook, and your chances of success, by just changing what you keep track of.

Many of the students I’ve met who are stressed, unhappy, and generally negative about their journey from high school to college are paying attention only to those things that support those outlooks. They’ll talk about the teacher who supposedly doesn’t like them, the student they believe didn’t deserve to edge them out for entrance into an AP class, the politics of the baseball team, and the problems they find with their school. They track (and blame someone else) every time they come up short. They remember every unlucky break. It’s them against the world, the odds are stacked against them, and none of it is their fault.

It’s not that all of their observations are necessarily untrue. But what they’ve chosen to track is clearly changing their outlook.

What if instead, they tracked the opposite?

What if they noticed their great teachers, the smart and interesting students they have the good fortune to learn with, the comradery of the baseball team, and the good parts of their school?

What if they paid more attention to every one of their successes, every lucky break, and every time a friend, family member, or teacher extended a hand to help them?

What if they owned every failure and used it not as an opportunity to blame, but one to learn from, something that could make them smarter, more resilient, and more likely to succeed the next time?

What you keep track of becomes what you expect more of. And what you expect more of often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some disappointments and setbacks are the real thing. But many more are not. If what you’ve come to expect is not making you happy and fulfilled, the quickest way to change your outcomes might be to change what you keep track of.