Bad luck, not a bad sign

The first step to having a great college interview? Relax. Most college interviews that are part of the admissions process are conducted with someone who has exactly two qualifications: (1) They graduated from that college, and (2) they volunteered. And that’s not the same as someone who will ultimately be in the room casting a vote to admit or deny.

Do those interviewers share their impressions of you with the committee? Sure. But that information—positive or negative—rarely reverses an admissions decision. It’s secondhand information gathered from one short conversation that likely took place in a coffee shop. Don’t blow it off. You might as well have a good showing and give yourself an edge, no matter how small. But your chances of making a great impression go up considerably when you stop worrying quite so much about making a great impression. Relax, be yourself, and have a mature, engaging conversation with an adult. That’s what a great college interview looks like.

If you’d like more evidence that your interviewer isn’t a vetted, highly trained, voting representative of the admissions committee, see The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent piece, “When Alumni Interviewers Screw Up, Things Get Weird.” There are plenty of alumni interviewers who do an admirable job for their schools (a few of them work with us as counselors at Collegewise!). But if yours doesn’t exactly represent all that you were hoping a representative of that school might, consider it bad luck, not necessarily a bad sign.

Fear of (scholarship) displacement

The New York Times opinion piece “The Catch 22 of Applying for Private Scholarships” shares one student’s frustration with “scholarship displacement.” If you win private scholarships (also known as “outside scholarships”) from companies, churches, non-profits, etc., many colleges reserve the right to reduce your need-based financial aid award accordingly. For example, if you win a $1,000 scholarship from the local Rotary Club, your college may reason that you now need 1,000 fewer dollars in financial aid. It raises a logical question: What’s the point of actually applying for private scholarships if the net gain will be $0?

But it’s important not to make rash decisions around college financing. So here are a few important points that are not made clear—or are left out altogether—from the article.

First, not all need-based financial aid is free money. It can also come in the form of loans or work study programs. According to the National Scholarship Providers Organization, 80 percent of colleges will reduce loans or work study first if you receive a private scholarship. That’s not such a bad displacement break.

Also, remember that every dollar you win in scholarships is a dollar less you’ll be required to pay for college. Yes, that dollar in scholarship terms may count for more at some colleges than it does at others depending on each school’s displacement practices. But free money (that does not have to be paid back) to pay for college is pretty much always a good thing because it gives you more control over your financial destiny.

And finally, there are steps you can take to mitigate your award displacement if you find yourself in that situation. Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz shares some of his tips in this article.

The vast majority of the funds available to help students pay for college are accessed by applying for need-based financial aid. But private scholarships can help reduce your costs even further. If you’re concerned about college costs, don’t let fear of displacement deter you from availing yourself of every option.

Why not?

Last month, I shared that my firefighter college friend sent me his department’s proposed “Mission and Values” statement for some editing feedback. I gave him some, along with a completely rewritten version that came right out and said what I thought they were trying to say, without all the formal just-like-every-other-mission-statement speak (you can see some sample passages in the past post). I called it “Kevin’s version the chief will never approve.” Turns out I was wrong. I was happy and a little shocked last week to learn that they adopted almost all my verbiage, including the samples shared in the last post.

I won’t share the new version here because their mission statement—and this post—are not about me at all. But it was a good reminder that sometimes the path to a welcome change or a better way is just one person who says, “Why not?”

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” is a fine reason to keep things the same if it’s a source of pride for the people doing it. Honored traditions and best practices gain that status when they work well and people embrace them.

But if it’s just been too long since someone considered whether the way you’ve always done it is in fact the best way, if you don’t have a good reason to keep things the same, it might be the perfect time to ask, “Why not?” and consider trying something new.

Is there a better way?

You don’t have to hold a leadership position to see and suggest a better way of doing things.

Our local community center runs a “Toddler Gym” every Saturday morning. For a small membership fee, parents can take their kids to an indoor basketball court loaded with toys and mats and miniature vehicles and let them get all their energy out. But every fourth or fifth Saturday, the Toddler Gym is canceled because the space is being used for something else. Unfortunately, that information is never shared in advance, not even on the website. And the employees have to spend time and energy disappointing 75-100 families who typically show up, either by turning them away at the door or taking their phone call ahead of time.

It’s not an egregious customer service mistake. We’re lucky to have a community center that does this at all. But there’s still got to be a better way.

It seems like those dates could be put on a public calendar ahead of time or posted on the website as they occur. Or send out a quick “No Toddler Gym today due to our basketball tournament—we’ll see you next Saturday!” We all had to enter our email addresses to enroll. Why not use that asset?

One of those cheerful employees behind the desk must have had similar thoughts considering they have to deliver that news to families on Saturday mornings. Why not do something about it? It’s hard to imagine someone could get fired for suggesting or just outright initiating a better way that they genuinely believe will make the customers and the employees happier.

The most junior admissions officer can point out where their application instructions aren’t clear enough and offer to do something about it.

A counselor can spot where there’s a bottleneck of information in their office and try to make things more efficient.

The homecoming committee member who notices that there’s no place at the dance for people to leave their coats can point it out, and even better, can suggest a workable solution on the fly.

Finding a better way doesn’t mean ignoring directions. You can’t decide that a homemade video will be better than the paper your English teacher specifically asked you to write. And I’ve written before that college applicants should not look for a better way to provide the requested information to colleges—schools are very particular about what, when, and how materials should be sent.

But the most impactful improvements are often built on multiple well-intentioned micro-changes made over time. And that starts with caring enough to ask, “Is there a better way?”

The freedom of college

When we ask Collegewise students what excites them most about college, “The freedom” is one of the most common answers. And I’ve found with most kids that this isn’t code for “The freedom to act irresponsibly and do whatever I want all the time.” For most, it’s the freedom from the imposed structure, the lack of choice, and frankly, the pressure that’s become so common for today’s high school students.

I love that the pending freedom excites these kids, especially when they also start considering—not over-planning, just considering—what exactly they plan to do with that freedom once they have it.

You’ll have the freedom to make choices. It’s hard to find that freedom at age 17 when you’re in school six hours a day, then participating in after-school activities, doing homework, being tutored, doing test prep, etc. But college isn’t going to be like that. Even if you’re a student who works in college or plays a college sport or otherwise commits yourself to something important, chances are good you will have abundantly more choices available to you in college.

You’ll be free to learn just about any subject that interests you. And depending on your college and your course of study, those choices won’t be limited to what’s available as part of your major.

You’ll be free to decide how you want to spend more of your time.

You’ll be free to try new things—subjects, involvements, approaches, etc.

You’ll be free to take responsibility for yourself and for your decisions.

You’ll be free to fail. Not catastrophically (I don’t recommend flunking out of college), and not because you didn’t make the effort. But when you no longer have to worry about failure hurting your chances of getting into college, you’re now free to make the effort even when success isn’t necessarily a sure thing.

You’ll be free to reinvent yourself into who you are rather than what your high school world seemed to push you to be.

This newfound freedom won’t excuse you from your responsibility to make the most of your college time and money. In fact, your newfound freedom is what allows you to do just that.

So students, while you’re dreaming of how wonderful that freedom will be, spend some time thinking about just exactly what you’ll do with it when it arrives. Imagining what you’ll do with that freedom will help you find colleges that are right for you, get accepted when you apply, and be both happy and successful once you get there.

Learned decision making

Kids learn to make good decisions by actually making decisions. Whenever possible and reasonable, let kids choose. Classes, activities, hobbies, colleges, etc. Sometimes there’s a compelling reason to make the choice for them. But learned decision making is a compelling reason to let them choose.

Make it a little better

There’s a lot of wisdom in this pithy passage from one of my favorite management books:

“When you enter your place of work, you never leave it at zero. You either make it a little better or a little worse. Make it a little better.”

It also applies when you swap “place of work” with school, classroom, rehearsal, dinner with your family, etc.

Expecting more from—and for—kids

Last month at their annual parent education event hosted by Challenge Success, over 900 parents showed up to explore two questions: (1) How do we love our children unconditionally and still hold them to high expectations? (2) How do we protect our children while letting them learn life lessons?

For those of us who weren’t among the local 900 in attendance, they shared a video of the entire 90-minute presentation, almost all of which is worth watching. If you’d rather not watch the entire thing, here’s a screenshot of an email they sent with the timestamps for particular topics touched on during the presentation. Please don’t skip the short clip that begins at the two-minute mark. It’s a video they showed attendees featuring students at La Canada High School who answered:

  • How does your school define success?
  • How do you personally define success?
  • What do you wish the adults at your school knew?
  • What do you wish your parents knew?

I found the responses both hopeful and heartbreaking.

Today’s kids are living and learning in a very different world than their parents did when they were in high school. And today’s parents often find themselves in uncharted child-rearing waters. There are no simple, step-by-step parenting guidelines to be found, and Challenge Success doesn’t purport to offer any. But their message and their teachings are inspiring. When we care more about raising kids who can thrive in the world of tomorrow than we do about raising kids who can thrive on the transcripts and tests of today, we’re expecting more from—and for—our kids, not less.

Not so lonely at the top

Last Friday, I posted “How you score with people” to remind high school students that the relentless measurement and reward of individual achievement so embedded in the college admissions process isn’t necessarily reflective of what it takes to be successful in the real world. What prompted that post in the first place—and the larger message that I couldn’t fit neatly into that single post—is the growing body of evidence that the people who seem to have  long-term success are those who find a way to help the people around them succeed, too.

Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant lays out a convincing argument in Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Here are two past posts on the book, here and here, and a New York Times story featuring Grant’s work, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

I just finished a preview copy of Harvard psychology researcher Shawn Achor’s Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being. The book’s key message is that while competition and individual achievement leave you disconnected and short of your full potential, connecting with, relating to, and learning from other people leads to long-term success and happiness.

And naysayers who are reluctant to take their eyes off the individual prize might be interested in last weekend’s New York Times opinion piece about the “Shalene Flanagan Effect.” The first American woman to win the New York Marathon in over 40 years, Flanagan has also nurtured and encouraged the growing talent around her with remarkable results—every one of her 11 training partners has qualified for the Olympics.

The article finishes:

“She [Flanagan] is extraordinarily competitive, but not petty; team-oriented, but not deferential. Elevating other women is actually an act of self-interest: It’s not so lonely at the top if you bring others along…So, it was no coincidence that, with the support system she spent years building for herself, it was Flanagan who finally prevailed.”

If this activity were made illegal…

Students, make a mental list of your activities that includes everything you choose—but are not required—to do. Now pick one and imagine that a state law was just enacted making that activity illegal.

Would you be disappointed, or secretly relieved?

Repeat the process with each activity and remember that you don’t need a law to take one off the list. It’s your time and effort. You get to make the rules.