Parents: start the trend at home

Some college admissions articles resonate so much with readers that many people forward them to me, and that was certainly true with the recent New York Times piece “Check This Box if You’re a Good Person.” But the article also struck a chord with the counselor community as a whole, both inside and outside of Collegewise (many have been posting and commenting on social media).

I can hear what the cynics will say.

It’s a sweet message, but “nice” doesn’t get you into good colleges.

You can’t list “nice” on a college application.

If the writer likes nice kids so much, why did she and her former colleagues at Dartmouth focus so much on grades, test scores, and impressive activities?

But naysayers, especially those who are parents, are missing the larger message.

Parents, what kind of teen are you hoping to raise?

Do you want to raise one with perfect grades and high test scores? Or are you trying to raise a mature, compassionate, and, yes, nice human being?

Of course, those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive. There are plenty of kids at the top of their class who are also compassionate, sensitive, generous, etc.

But here’s the parental gut check: are you teaching, acknowledging, and praising the behaviors that make your teen a good person? Or has the college admissions frenzy caused you to ignore those traits in favor of teaching, acknowledging, and praising behaviors that lead to stronger GPAs, test scores, resumes, etc.?

The author would love to start a trend where colleges “foster the growth of individuals who show promise not just in leadership and academics, but also in generosity of spirit.”

Until that day, why not start the trend at home?

Seek good certainty

I always remind seniors who are weighing their college options that some amount of uncertainty is normal. That’s the way that big decisions like a job offer to accept, a new city in which to live, and yes, a college to attend, work. You do as much research, thinking, and soul searching as you can. Then you just have to listen to your gut and make the leap. Don’t assume that you necessarily have to be sure of this choice when you make it. In fact, that uncertainty is often the best part.

But here’s one thing you can be absolutely certain of–if you take on student debt to attend college, you’re going to have to pay it back.

Whether you’ve already identified your post-college career or haven’t even chosen a major yet, life will always offer uncertainties. You may fall in love with a career option that just doesn’t pay very well. You may not get into the graduate school that you hoped to attend. You may land–but then be laid off from–your dream job. These things happen even to smart, successful people. And if they happen to you, you’ll need to be flexible and resilient to keep going.

But your student loan lenders will not care how your plans changed or what unforeseen circumstances you’re facing. They’ll want to be paid on time. That’s a certainty.

This is not an argument that you shouldn’t take on student debt. I think that’s a decision that each student needs to make with their family. And there are certainly adults who are not only thankful that they took on the debt required to attend the college they did, but also very proud that they responsibly paid off what they owed.

But the more debt you assume when you start college, the bigger role that debt will play in your post-college plans. The less debt you owe, student loan or otherwise, the more freedom you’ll have to make decisions based on what’s best for you, not best for your creditor, and the more flexible you’ll be able to be when life has different plans. And nobody ever lost sleep at night because they just didn’t owe enough people more money.

The more uncertainty you have about your college and your future career, the more cautious you should be taking on a potentially large debt to attend. If the only thing you can be sure of today is that the school you’re about to choose won’t leave you with hefty student loans when you graduate, that’s a pretty good certainty to carry with you to college.

The deep end of the waitlist discussion

Parke Muth is a former associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia and an independent college counselor. In his most recent blog post, he gives one of the frankest, most thorough discussions of the admissions waitlist—what it means, why colleges use them, and how to determine your odds of being moved to a yes.

This is not “Five Easy Tips to Improve your Odds of Being Taken off the Waitlist.” Muth wades into the deep end and actually explains both the reasoning and the numbers behind this policy that’s become so rampant at selective colleges.

I did particularly enjoy this advice, which echoes a lot of my own from past posts:

“To me, most students would be much better off taking the time to embrace the school they have paid a deposit to attend. Start wearing the school sweatshirt, start filling out all the stuff that the schools send, gets on the entering class Facebook page etc. Start imaging a great life ahead instead of focusing on what will likely not happen.”

Some of the statistics and harsh truths might be difficult for students stuck on a waitlist to read right now. But as much as it might give you some relief to be encouraged, I think it’s just as important to give you useful, honest information that can actually help you make good decisions (especially when the college that waitlisted you has only given you a “maybe”).

Sustainable givers

In a past post, I shared the most important lesson in Adam Grant’s wonderful book Give and Take: the “Givers,”—those who pay more attention to what other people need than what other people can offer them, who are generous with their time, energy, skills and ideas and want to share them with people who can benefit the most, all without concern for getting credit—those are the people who are consistently the most successful, providing that they don’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of.

That distinction—the art of giving without letting the takers take advantage—is important. Successful people say no all the time, and much of Grant’s book explores how to land and stay in the healthy giving camp. But if you’d like a crash course, this Harvard Business Review article, which Grant co-authored, explains more about how to be a giver without burning out your giving engine.

Grant divides the givers into two categories: selfless givers and self-protective givers.

SELFLESS GIVERS have high concern for others but low concern for themselves. They set few or no boundaries, which makes them especially vulnerable to takers. By ignoring their own needs, they exhaust themselves and, paradoxically, end up helping others less.

SELF-PROTECTIVE GIVERS are generous, but they know their limits. Instead of saying yes to every help request, they look for high-impact, low-cost ways of giving so that they can sustain their generosity — and enjoy it along the way.

Whether you’re a teenager or an adult, you’ll be more successful, more indispensable, and better appreciated when you’re willing to give more than you take. But it’s important to keep the giving sustainable.

As the article concludes, “Effective givers recognize that every no frees you up to say yes when it matters most. After all, it’s hard to support others when you’re so overloaded that you’ve hit a wall.”

The training starts now

Parents of high school underclassmen, imagine if you spent the next year (or two years, or three years) feeding or even initiating your student’s desire to go to the senior prom with any member on the short list of the class’s most popular kids.

Maybe if we get you the right clothes, she’ll be more likely to say yes?

I heard he likes athletes, so you should definitely keep playing basketball.

I know some people who can introduce you to her parents. If you make a great impression, that should definitely help your chances. 

If the big senior prom match doesn’t come to fruition, your student will have a long way to bounce back.

Sure, you could say all the right things about it being their loss, there are plenty of fish in the sea, anyone who can’t see how special your student is doesn’t deserve to date them, etc. But you’ve also got a lot of history to unravel. All that time spent building up the supposed ideal choices will make it a lot harder to let those choices go when they’re no longer available.

This month, college admissions news is arriving for seniors. And while there will be lots of celebrating, there will also be plenty of disappointment, even heartbreak. Every one of those students will bounce back eventually. But some will do so much faster than others. Those who embraced the idea that what a student does in college is more important than where they do it, who viewed the process as an exciting journey rather than an arms race, who are excited about all the learning, growth, and fun that will likely be found at any of the schools that ended up on their list, those are the families who will move past this bad news and quickly focus on the good.

But the families who spent much of their college search focusing only on a short list of famous colleges, who’ve built up the idea in their mind that an admission to one of those schools is the necessary validation for all their hard work, those are the students (and parents) who will have a longer period of admissions decision mourning.

Freshman, sophomore, and junior families, you’ll make the process a lot more enjoyable and successful, and you’ll be far more likely to push through any admissions disappointment quickly, if you lay the groundwork now. Find the enjoyment in the process. Look for the right schools, not just the famous ones. And reinforce that the opportunity to go to any college is just that, an opportunity. There is no such thing as an admissions decision that leaves a student ruined—or all set—for life.

Essays, applications, interviews–all of that can wait until later. But the attitude and approach to the process? That training starts now.

A different March Madness

The folks at Challenge Success just released their spring newsletter, which includes an archived piece, March Madness, from co-founder Madeline Levine about how to create a supportive environment for students who have received college rejections. And I particularly appreciated this advice:

“Instead of crying over rejections, we should be celebrating acceptances with our kids in March… The best guarantees of success for our children—not at the end of the grading period, not when they get into college—but twenty years down the line when they move into their adult lives, have to do with real involvement with learning (not just going through the motions,) a good emotional foundation and good values. Their college acceptances have nothing, or little, to do with your parenting. This is about your child. And they should feel good about moving towards one of the greatest transitions in their lives. Wherever your kid gets into college this month, go out and celebrate.”

Make things happen

Susan Cain’s recent New York Times piece calls attention to “the glorification of leadership skills, especially in college admissions,” something that leaves many kids “jockeying for leadership positions as résumé padders.”

She proposes at the end of the article:

“What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? This framework would encompass exceptional team captains and class presidents. But it wouldn’t make leadership the be-all and end-all…What if we said to our would-be leaders, ‘Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand’?”

But here’s some news that may surprise some people—what Cain describes is, in fact, exactly what colleges are looking for.

Maybe colleges don’t always make it clear. Maybe the word “leadership” is too general, especially for 17-year-olds, to encapsulate all the various ways a person can lead, including doing so without running for an office or even telling other people what to do. Or maybe this “jockeying for leadership positions” is yet another piece of the college admissions process that is so deeply entrenched that families can’t bear to change their thinking, no matter what the counselors or the colleges say.

I tackled this topic recently, but it bears repeating: colleges are not impressed by leadership positions alone. What they’re impressed with is excellence, passion, and the desire to contribute beyond one’s self that Cain envisions. Leadership positions are not the only opportunity to demonstrate those traits.

There’s nothing wrong with leadership positions. But the mark of a leader is not the fact that she was named to a leadership position—it’s what she manages to accomplish while holding that position. And as a passionate, engaged, hard-working follower, you can probably accomplish just as much as, if not more than, the person who lists the title on their resume.

If you’re more comfortable as a follower than a leader, please don’t try to change yourself just to fit what you think colleges appreciate. Instead of trying to be something you don’t want to be, spend more time making things happen for activities, groups, people, and causes that you care about.

Writing before meeting

If you’re an executive at Amazon and you want to pitch a new idea to your colleagues, you’ll have some writing—and they’ll have some reading—to do.

Here’s what often happens in your typical meeting. Someone has an idea, maybe one they haven’t taken all that much time to think through, and they share it with the group. Or they might bring a PowerPoint deck that includes bulleted facts to support their vision. Discussions, questions, objections, etc. ensue. But in the end, nobody feels ready to say yes to the idea. There are too many questions, too many unknowns, and not a clear enough picture of what the idea would actually look like in practice. And the only decision reached is to discuss the idea—again—at a future meeting.

Amazon avoids this version of new idea limbo with “narratives.”

Anyone with a new idea must first lay out their argument in a memo of no longer than six pages. It’s not just a description; they address the assertions, assumptions, benefits, risks, and suggested next steps. And the idea is not shared in advance—it’s shared at the beginning of the meeting. At the start of the meeting, everyone reads the memo and makes notes in the margins. When everyone is finished reading, they ask the writer questions for 30-45 minutes. And best of all, at the end of the meeting, a decision is reached—yes, no, or a next step like gathering missing information.

Here are the benefits to this approach:

1. It makes ideas stronger.

It’s harder to write a convincing argument than it is to float a half-formed idea in a meeting. That’s intentional. The narrative forces people to really think about their idea, to consider not just the potential benefits but also the risks and the reasons it might not work (because you know you’ll need to answer those questions). As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos describes it in this article:

“Full sentences are harder to write [than bullets in a PowerPoint presentation]… They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Most of us would not voluntarily listen to a presentation if the speaker told us, “I haven’t prepared exactly what I want to say today, so I’m just going to start talking and see where it goes.” So why should we allow it in a meeting? The narrative imposes discipline before discussion.

2. It respects colleagues’ time.
Too often, a group’s approach to getting things done is “Let’s have a meeting.” But time is a precious commodity. And group meetings—especially when they include meandering discussions about half-formed ideas that ultimately don’t lead to decisions—are often gigantic time-wasters. The narrative means that if you don’t feel ready to present your pitch in writing, if you’re not ready to defend it in front of the group, then you don’t call the meeting. You can use that time to prepare. And you’ve respected your colleagues’ time by letting them do their work in the meantime.

3. It leads to faster, better decisions.
How many meetings have you sat through that were all talk and no follow-up action? The point of discussing just about anything in a group meeting is to make a decision of some kind. Sometimes the decision is a no. But that’s still a decision, a much more definitive one than the standard, “Let’s continue this discussion next week (at which point many of us will simply repeat what we said this week).”

You don’t have to adopt Amazon’s narrative to make your meetings more productive. In fact, you could improve most meetings with just a few simple steps.

  • Remember that any meeting is taking time from all the participants. 5-10 people spending an hour together is actually 5-10 hours of time that could have been spent doing something else. If you’re going to have meetings, make your meetings count.
  • Don’t have standing meetings that happen whether or not there’s anything worth discussing. Have a meeting only when you need to have a meeting.
  • Are you meeting just to get a group update on what everyone has been doing? Why not have colleagues just write a paragraph or two (not an Amazon narrative-style argument, just a simple description) and share it ahead of time?
  • If you want to share an idea just to get feedback, share it with a few key people first. Get their thoughts, objections, and concerns. This is like doing a focus group. You’ll have a chance to refine your idea before you bring it to the meeting. In fact, you might be able to line those key people up as supporters before then.
  • Measure your meetings by the decisions made. If the only decision made is to have another meeting, that’s not a decision. Decisions are yes, no, or a specific step to gather whatever is preventing you from making the decision today.

Five examples parents can set for kids

One of my college planning themes is that parents are always on stage. Your kids are learning from your behaviors even if you aren’t intending for those behaviors to be teaching moments. And beyond the obvious ones like “Don’t lie, cheat or steal” and “Be nice to people,” there are plenty of opportunities for parents to use their own interests, lives, and challenges as opportunities to set good examples for their kids. Here are five that will teach them skills that can help them get into college–and also be successful once they get there.

1. Share your own goals.
You probably have goals of your own. Maybe you’re vying for a promotion at work. Maybe you want to initiate a new project with the PTA. Maybe you just want to spend more time with your family. But whatever your goals, share them with your kids. Talk about what you’re reaching for and why it matters to you. Include the details about what’s difficult, intimidating, or just plain unknown. Setting and striving for goals are skills that kids can learn. And showing them how will be a lot more powerful than telling them will be.

2. Let them see and hear your passion.
What is it that you love to do? Practice law? Cook? Play golf? Whether it’s your profession, an obligation that you embrace, or even just a hobby, today’s kids need to be reminded just how much value there is in finding and doing what you love. So share your enthusiasm. Even better, invite them to experience it, too. They may shun you and feign teenage embarrassment. But even if they roll their eyes at how much Mom or Dad loves to go to work at the restaurant every day, or do home improvement projects, or watch their alma mater’s football games, you’re still showing them just how much joy can be found when you do what you love, part-time or full-time.

3. Show your love of learning.
Learning begins at home, and so does the love of learning. What have you spent time, energy, or even money to learn? Even better, where did you invest those resources willingly, not because you were obligated to do so? That’s the learning sweet spot, and it sets a great example for your kids. A former Collegewise student wrote his essay about how much his dad loved to read about business, how he’d sit in his easy chair with a highlighter and pore over a different book every weekend. This student didn’t have a personal interest in business, but the example his dad had set resonated with him. Many of today’s students are so focused on achieving high GPAs that they’ve lost (or never had) any joy around learning. Demonstrate at home that the opportunities to learn, and to fall in intellectual love with a topic, are everywhere. The attitude will leave a lasting impression even if the love-worthy topic hasn’t presented itself yet.

4. Don’t hide your failures.
Parents aren’t perfect. Sometimes we go for promotions that we don’t get. Sometimes we don’t handle a difficult situation as well as we should have. Sometimes we paint the bathroom and don’t realize until it’s over that we’re not as proficient with color choice as we thought we were. I’m not suggesting that you should create and celebrate a family culture of continuous failure. But kids need to learn that part of being successful means trying difficult things that might not work. If your kids see you not just fail, but also bounce back and keep going, that’s a wonderful example to set for them.

5. Focus on the right things.
When you’re elderly and you look back on your life, do you imagine that you’ll think, “I’m so glad I obsessed about my son’s SAT scores as much as I did,” or, “She’d be nowhere today if she hadn’t gotten accepted to Duke,” or, “My proudest accomplishment as a parent was the day I won the grading war with her high school Spanish teacher”? Those might seem like ridiculous scenarios to propose. But one way to evaluate your behavior today is to imagine how you’ll look back on that behavior many tomorrows from now. Your kids’ education is important. But GPAs, test scores, and admissions decisions from a particular college? None of those things are more important than family, health, and happiness. So yes, treat your kids’ college future with the attention it deserves. Combine high expectations with unconditional love. But don’t forget to appreciate the things that really matter in the long run. If you keep setting good examples, your kids will appreciate those things, too.