Are you the next Bill Gates?

Bill_gates_03In high school, Bill Gates was a kid who was absolutely fascinated with computers.  He got himself excused from his math classes so that he could learn more about programming.  He would sneak out of the house at night to use a computer on the University of Washington's campus (the college kids were using it during the day).  His high school hired him to write computer code to schedule students into classes.  So Gates did–and made sure the software would automatically place him in classes with a higher ratio of females to males.  He wrote a program in high school that would count traffic, and sold it to the city for several thousand dollars. 

According to the book Outliers, Gates estimated he spent about 10,000 hours learning and exploring computer programming during his youth.  He loved it, and was totally obsessed with it. 

I didn't go to high school with the man, but I am certain that Bill Gates never once concerned himself with whether or not his passion for computers would get him into a "good" college.  He didn't ask if it would "look good" on his applications.  He didn't worry if he should be getting more leadership positions or joining more clubs or doing something else that highly-selective colleges were "looking for."  He just found something he loved, devoted himself to it, mastered it, and used his knowledge to impact his school and his city. 

The results speak for themselves…

1. After high school, Bill Gates went to Harvard.

2. Today, he is the founder of Microsoft and has a net worth of approximately 56 billion dollars.

You can't fake passion.  And that's why colleges look for it.  They don't want someone who chose activities based on what he thought would be impressive.  They want the next Bill Gates (though they would likely prefer that you not drop out of college, which Gates did to found Microsoft in 1975).

   

College admissions simplified

My friend Paul Kanarek at The Princeton Review speaks weekly at local high schools on the college admissions and testing process.  Lately, he's been pointing out that admissions officers really just want to know three things about applicants. 

1. Are you smart enough to succeed here?

2. Do we like you?

3. Do other people like you?

If you look at every element of your application that admissions officers evaluate, from the classes you take, to the impact you make in your activities, to the subject on which you choose to write your college essays, every one of them can be traced back to one of these questions.

Are you indispensable?

I just finished reading an interesting book called "Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?"  It wasn't written for high school students trying to get into college; but if you took its lessons and applied them to your high school life, I think you'd find yourself happier, more fulfilled, and more appealing to colleges. 

Here's the gist of the book:  If you want to have a successful career that you enjoy, it's not enough to just work hard, follow instructions, do what your boss tells you to do, and avoid mistakes.  That's fine if you do that, but it won't make you indispensable.  A boss can find lots and lots of other people who will follow instructions and do good–but not indispensable–work. 

Indispensable could mean being the best sales person who makes millions for a company.  But it can also be the grocery checker who's so warm and enthusiastic that customers love her and specifically come to that store because of her. It could be the waitress at the coffee shop who remembers customers' names and their favorite drinks and makes a great impression on everyone.  It's anyone who loves her work, puts her whole self into it, and in the process delights customers and co-workers.  It's these people who are getting and keeping the best jobs today because they're indispensable.  They can't easily be replaced.

Being indispensable isn't all about talent.  It's about attitude, investment, and energy that you bring to your job. You don't have to be the CEO of a company to do that, and you don't have to be the club president, the editor of the school newspaper, or the captain of the football team to do it in high school.

If you're on the student government and end up with the job of collecting tickets at the door for the homecoming dance, you can do that one of two ways.  You can show up on time, sit where you're supposed to sit, collect the tickets, not make any mistakes, and leave when it's over. 

Or you could show up a little early to help set up.  You could suggest that the table be moved to a different spot, because you can see that its current location will make it difficult for people to make an orderly line once the big crowd shoes up.  You could smile and enthusiastically greet people when they arrive.  You could tell people how great they look (and be especially complimentary to those kids who don't hear that kind of praise very often).  At your break, you could offer to go get some water and snacks for everyone working the table with you.  You could figure out ways to keep being valuable once most of the students have shown up, like picking up the tickets that students have dropped on the ground, checking in with the chaperones to see if they need anything, and offering to run out for more ice when you see it's running low.  And when the dance is over, you could be one of the last to leave, staying to help clean up and offering to help carry the tables back the cafeteria where they came from.

Which of those two approaches makes you more indispensable to the student government?  Which makes a bigger impression on the people around you?  And most importantly, which makes you feel better about yourself when you go home that night? 

Taking tickets is not a highly-visible job.  It's not something you'll list on your college applications.  It's not going to win you any awards.  There are few reasons to do it if you expect a tangible and immediate reward in return.   

But you have a choice about how to approach your role for that one night.  You can phone-it-in, do what you're supposed to do, and not make any mistakes.  Or you can use it as an opportunity to actually do a great performance, to bring your whole self to the role, to lead by example and show people that you're the kind of person who brings a lot to any job you do, whether or not it's important and visible. 

It's this kid, not necessarily the ones who have the most impressive titles, who's going places.

When I've written about kids who are active and engaged in class, those are the kids that teachers find indispensable. 

When I've written about kids who bring a positive attitude and work ethic even if they're not the best player on the soccer team, those are the kids that coaches find indispensable. 

When I've written about the kid who does community service not to chalk up hours but because she cares deeply about the mission of the organization, or the kid who doesn't get the lead in the school play but volunteers to run the lights, or the water polo player who leads the team's fundraising drive, or the kid who doesn't hold an office in the Spanish club but makes authentic tamales everyone loves for the meetings, or the kid who does scientific research with a college professor because he just has to know more about physics, those are the kids that are indispensable.

So, are you indispensable?  If you're not, what could you start doing today to become that way?

No fear of failure

I write and talk a lot about the importance of celebrating your strengths as opposed to spending all your time trying to fix your weaknesses.  But here's a secret about smart, confident, successful people–they actually fail a lot.  

Those people don't like to fail, but they understand that the more often you challenge yourself, the more often you're going to fail.  And they're not afraid of it.  They know that you can't have a big success without some failures along the way.  And the most likeable of them aren't afraid to talk about their failures. They'll share those stories openly and maybe even laugh at themselves when the failure was embarrassing.

When you can laugh about a failure, a weakness, or something that was outright embarrassing, it's endearing.  It shows confidence and how comfortable you are just being yourself.  People love hanging out with others who are like that.  And colleges love those people in their classes and dorms.

Those who can laugh at themselves would have no trouble completing the following statements.  In fact, they'd probably enjoy it.

1.  I am quite possibly the world's worst__________.

2.  The most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me is ___________.

3.  It bothers me that I don't seem to be very good at ___________.

4.  I think my greatest weakness is____________.

5.  An example of a time I failed (and I mean really failed) was ___________.

Try it.  Complete the blanks and have a laugh. 

I'm not saying you should resign yourself to failure and give up.  I'm saying that the only people who never fail are the ones who always take the easy way.  Take the harder way and have a laugh when it doesn't go so well.

There's a reason why college applications and interviewers ask questions like these (#5 shows up on lots of college applications).  They want the people who are confident enough to risk failure and still hold their heads high when it happens to them.

5 questions you should be ready to answer in college interviews

Most college interviewers aren't trying to test you; they're really just trying to get to know you better.  If you're ready to give *good answers to the following five questions, you will almost certainly be prepared for just about anything you're asked.

1.  Why are you applying to this school?

2.  What's your favorite subject, and do you intend to pursue this in college?

3.  What do you enjoy doing when you're not in class?

4.  What are three interesting things about yourself that I wouldn't know from your application?

5.  What's an example of a mistake you made, a failure you endured, something you aren't good at, or anything else that you probably wouldn't bring up unless somebody asked you about it?

Your motivations for college, your intellectual interests, your interests outside of class, your personality, your level of humility and self awareness, those are the kinds of things interviewers want to get a sense of.  Be comfortable discussing them and you'll probably have a great interview.   

*A good answer is one that's honest, that's not contrived to sound impressive, that reveals something about yourself and that has a personal anecdote to back it up.  You're just trying to help them get to know you better.  You're not weaving a tall tale.

What Nike and highly-selective colleges have in common

Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the history of the game.  When he came into the league in 1984, nobody had ever seen spectacular, high flying dunks like Jordan could do.  He won six NBA championships.  He was the league MVP 5 times.  He led the league in scoring 10 times.  He was Defensive Player of the Year in 1988.  He could shoot three-pointers.  He could rebound.  He was a leader, a tenacious competitor, and just to top it all off, he was one of the worst trash talkers to ever play in the NBA (I would have been, too, if I could back it up like Jordan did).

It was no surprise that when Nike introduced their Air Jordan basketball shoe early in Jordan's career, it became the hottest selling athletic shoe of its day.  Nike's marketing execs were smart enough to attach their brand to Jordan and bet on him early.  They could see that he was great and was only going to become even greater. Over 25 years later (and nearly a decade since Michael left the game of
basketball for good), the Air Jordan is still one of the most popular basketball
shoes.  It was brilliant marketing foresight.

That's a lot like what highly selective colleges are doing when they select kids. 

The nation's most selective colleges get applications from the smartest, most exceptional applicants in the college admissions pool and then reject almost all of them.  For the 10% that are accepted, the colleges are betting on their success like Nike bet on Jordan.  Given what those kids have already accomplished by age 18, it's a smart bet. 

So, how much credit do the colleges deserve when those kids go on to do great things?

I think that to give too much credit to the most selective schools for the greatness of
their graduates is a bit like saying that Michael Jordan achieved his success
because of his trademark shoes. 

Successful people don't do great things just because they attend a famous college.  They do great things because they've worked hard enough to become great in the first place.  Kids who have the intellectual curiosity, work ethic and passion for their interests to be accepted to a highly-selective college are more likely to apply those same traits once they get there.  Put a bunch of those kids together and you have a lot of potentially great future college graduates.  They were, after all, great before they ever moved into the dorm.

I don't have anything against highly selective colleges.  I don't deny that they can offer a unique experience for an exceptional kid who's seeking the opportunity to surround herself with ridiculously smart, motivated, passionate students who are also published authors, concert pianists, patent holders, all-American athletes, artists, physicists, etc.

But that experience is a product of the population as much if not more so than it is of the college and the education it provides.  Nobody with an ounce of common sense has ever believed that a basketball shoe alone would actually get you into the NBA.  Please don't believe that a famous college will make you great. 

When he was a kid on the varsity team, Jordan wasn't dreaming of having a shoe named after him.  He just wanted to be a great basketball player.  So don't make your high school years about trying to get accepted to an Ivy League school.  If that's the only reason you're working hard, you're missing the point. 

Your goal should be to become great–at math, painting, the drums, hockey, poetry, drama, computer programming, video production, singing–whatever it is that you love to do.  Work hard enough at being great and the right colleges will appreciate you.  

Then you can bring your greatness (and your shoes of choice) with you to college.

How important are PSAT scores?

I think students and parents need to find reasons to stress less,
not more, about the college admissions process.  The PSAT is a good
example of this need. 

The stress students and parents feel
regarding PSAT scores (which are being returned to students about now),
is often totally out of proportion with the actual relevance of the
scores.  

The PSAT is just a practice test.  That's all.  It
was created to let students take a non-threatening trial version of the
SAT before they take the real thing.  It can't hurt you.  It can't
damage your future.  No student in the history of college admissions
has ever been rejected by a college because she scored poorly on the
PSAT. 

Even good PSAT scores don't actually get you into
college.  If you did well on the PSAT, it's good news because you will
likely do well on the SAT when you take it–and that exam absolutely can
help you get into college.  Doing well on the PSAT is like doing well
on a practice test a teacher gives you before the big final exam; it's
a good sign but you'll still need to score well when it counts. 

In
fact, the only way colleges use PSAT scores is to purchase names for
direct marketing mailings.  If you took the test, you and your mailbox
will see what I mean later this spring.

So if you didn't do
well on the PSAT, don't launch into a full scale panic attack.  As my
friend Paul Kanarek from The Princeton Review always says at the dozens
of PSAT scores back sessions he does at high schools every year, "You
are not allowed to panic over your PSAT scores." 

For anyone
who's not happy with your PSAT scores, use your results as your early
warning signal that you might want to do some work before you take the
real SAT.  That's what test preparation is for (a service whose cost
ranges from thousands of dollars in private tutoring to $15 for a good book).

Now, I can hear some people saying, "But it's NOT just a practice test!  What about National Merit scholarships?" 

Yes,
a small number of students (about 8,000 of the 1.5 million test takers)
are awarded scholarships every year, and the PSAT scores are the first
of many rounds of qualification you must endure.  If you're notified
that your PSAT scores qualify you for future consideration, that's good
news (being in a line for future potential scholarship money is always
good news).

But for everyone else, again, don't panic.  You're
in good company with the other 1.5 million test takers who will still
have plenty of the over 2,000 4-year colleges from which to choose.

My
point here isn't that students should blow off the PSAT.  My point is
that students and parents would be well served to remind themselves
that if you lose sleep over your PSAT scores, you're placing far, far
more emphasis on the exam than any college will.  That would be like
playing one bad game of pick-up basketball with your friends and
worrying that you won't make varsity because of it.  It just doesn't
make sense.

Less stress, not more.

On the art of the complaint…

Seth Godin posted an interesting take yesterday about how to voice a complaint. It's a good technique with lots of applications for students and parents going through the college planning years. 

The message here is not to complain more often.  I think the college admissions process needs less complaining, not more.  

But sometimes you do have a legitimate complaint.  Maybe your counselor didn't send your transcripts or the college never told you that they hadn't received your test scores?  Maybe your SAT scores didn't go up after the prep class, or you feel like you're not getting a fair chance to be the starting catcher on the baseball team?  Whatever the complaint, why not approach it in a way that invites respect and collaboration. 

You have a better chance of getting someone to try to be helpful.  And you'll be putting yourself and the person to whom you're complaining on the same team.

Make your own value

The Today show ran this piece yesterday on the "Top 20 Best Value Colleges" which came from the results of a recent survey by The Princeton Review.  Now more than ever, families are asking questions–as they should–about the quality of colleges in relation to their sticker price.

Are private schools worth the money?

Will my education at a less selective public school be as good as the kind I might experience at a selective private school?

Which colleges will help me get a better paying job when I graduate?

But as you're comparing different colleges and what you'd be getting for your money, keep in mind that each student has enormous influence on the value of her college experience.

Here are two very different examples of students attending two very different schools.

Student #1 chooses to attend the cheapest public school in his state.  It's neither famous nor selective as it admits over 70% of the applicants.  He throws himself into the college experience.  He starts by visiting regularly with his academic advisor to talk about his courses and which ones he seems to like the most.  He visits professors during their office hours and gets to know them.  During his sophomore year, he chooses "regional development" as his major, a subject he first investigated at the urging of his advisor who thought he would love the courses (the advisor was right).  He's excited to go to class every day because he loves the subject matter.  He explores various activities and gets a part time job in the athletics office scheduling intramural sports games.  That job later turns into an internship where he works for the Director of Campus Activities.  When the school wants a student representative on the committee to plan for the new athletics complex, he interviews and is selected.  The summer before his senior year, the Director of Campus Activities hires him for a full time summer internship to coordinate student volunteers.  He does such a great job that they allow him to trim his hours and continue working during his senior year.  All the while, he's creating lifelong friendships and enjoying the fun that college has to offer.  He flourishes inside and outside of the classroom.  He graduates with honors, with a resume of experience, with professors and mentors who can advise him and serve as references, and with a lifetime worth of college memories.

Student #2 attends a highly selective, famous private college.  He majors in business because that's what he always said he wanted to major in.  He meets with his advisor only when he's required to and never fully avails himself of that resource.  He doesn't visit professors during their office hours.  He attends most, but not all of his classes, and is naturally smart enough to study the night before the test and pull off "B." He does fine academically, but certainly doesn't love his classes.  He plays intramural sports and makes some good friends, but doesn't ever seek out or locate an activity that he's passionate about.  During his college summers, he hangs out with his friends and has the occasional part time job to make extra spending money.  He doesn't cultivate any professional relationships with people who could serve as mentors or recommenders.  He makes some good friends and has his share of fun, but if you ask him, he really likes, but doesn't necessarily love college.  He graduates with a degree in business from a famous university, but no real experience other than his part-time summer jobs.  

So, who had the better college education?  Which student is likely to be more successful after college?  Which student got the best value for his college education?

The student is the variable in every college's education.  That's why it is almost impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy the potential quality and value of any one particular school.   

The best funded university in the world with small classes, plenty of support and loads of Nobel Prize winning professors won't be worth its tuition to the student who isn't willing to take advantage of those resources.  And the cheap public school that makes no appearance in the annual college rankings can become the launching pad to success for the right student who is naturally inclined to work hard and achieve his goals. 

Yes, you should be cost conscious when choosing colleges.  You should ask what you're going to get for your money.  And you should evaluate the spending decision just like you would with any purchase of a similar magnitude.  To do anything other than that would be irresponsible.

But it's important to remember that colleges don't make kids successful–kids have to do that for themselves.  A student's work ethic, curiosity, initiative, integrity and maturity–and what she does to apply those traits during her time in college–will have far greater influence over her happiness and post-college success than the name of her college will.  

If you want to get the most bang for your college buck, start your evaluation with the variable–the student.  Think about the kind of environment where a student would flourish, the kind of place where she can put her natural talents to the best use.  Then find the colleges that match that description.  Don't do it the other way around; don't pick famous colleges because you're sure they're "good" and then try to find a way to get accepted.

In college, you don't automatically get what you pay for.  You have to make your own value.

Life advice from Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs of Apple gave the commencement address at Stanford in 2005, the transcript made its way around cyberspace in a flurry of forwards.  But nearly five years later, I wonder how many of today's high school students (and parents) have read it.  I think it's worth it, so I'm posting it here.

For high school students, I see three direct parallels between his advice and your college planning. 

1.  Don't expect that you can plan your entire future in advance.  You can't draw a line forward that perfectly predicts what your life will be in 5 or 10 or 50 years.  But once you're there, you'll be able to draw a line backwards to see how it happened.  It will make sense when you look back. I can't tell you how many successful people, some famous and some not, describe what was a somewhat uncharted and surprising route that brought them where to they are today.  In the meantime, you just have to work hard, trust yourself, and follow the next two guidelines.   So don't try to convince yourself that the only way you'll ever be happy and successful is to go to one particular college–there are lots of different routes and colleges that can get you where you're meant to go. 

2.  Make your most important goal to find what you love.  From your high school activities, to your chosen college, to your college major, to your post college career choice, find what you love.  Don't spend your time doing something just because you think you should be doing it.   

3.  Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  Don't choose a college just because it's famous or because your friends are going.  Listen to yourself and go where you want to go.  As Jobs says,
"Your heart and intuition already know what you want to become.  Everything else is secondary."

If you were ever looking for advice about how to be successful, Steve Jobs seems like a good source.  And he never even graduated from college.