Knowing your path vs. finding it

20 years ago, the student body president of my high school went on to
UCLA as an economics major.  He said he might want to
be a politician someday, which made sense at the time.  But today, he's an emergency
room physician and the Associate Medical Director for NBC
Universal. 

In first period Spanish, our teacher used to ask the same
kid every morning to read the daily bulletin.  He did everything he
could to draw that process out and delay the start of class, including
making up stories off the top of his head.  His record was a 20-minute
class delay. He went to UC Santa Barbara, primarily for the same
reason a lot of kids still do–because of this
And today, he's the vice principal of a high school.

But
the math wiz who scored over 750 on
the math SAT (with no prep) as a junior, he went to UC Berkeley as a
mechanical engineering major, then got his PhD in engineering.  Today, he's the director of engineering at a company
making cleaner, renewable fuels.  I'm guessing that none of his old friends
who find him on Facebook are
surprised by what he's doing or how successful he is.

The engineer became what he knew
at age seventeen he wanted to be. 
He picked his college and his major based on a career path that he'd
already identified, one for which he'd already discovered the aptitude to be successful.

But
the doctor and the vice-principal didn't go to college to follow a
path; they went to college to find one.  Rather than identifying their
future careers while while they were in high school and then choosing a college and a major that would take them to that future, they used their
time in college to discover what their real talents where and to find the path they wanted to follow.

A lot of parents we meet at Collegewise
express concern that their kids don't know what they want to study in
college.  I understand those concerns, and I don't think a student should apply
to college without thoughtfully considering what their potential
academic interests might be.

But most teenage kids aren't like the engineer I knew back in high
school.  Most are more like the doctor and the vice-principal, excited
for the opportunity to attend college for reasons that have nothing to
do with future careers.  I think that's OK. 

Most successful people didn't pick their path back in high school.  Instead, they discovered it when they were in college, a time in their lives when they had the freedom explore their interests.

If you're a parent and you chose your college like the engineer did,
understand that while that worked very well for you, it might not work
so well for your kids.  If your student can't plot the
next four or ten or thirty years of his life, he's not necessarily directionless; he's just a normal
teenager. 

He'll find his path once he gets to college.

A fundraising idea for high schools sports teams

If you're a high school athlete (or the parent of one) and your team needs funds for uniforms, travel, or new equipment, you might consider re-evaluating your usual fundraising and trying something a little different. 

Instead of selling candy bars or getting businesses to purchase ads in a team directory, I think there's a huge opportunity for athletes to show a little more initiative, for the teams to generate even bigger funds, and for the sponsors to reap the rewards of supporting the team.  Here it is.

1.  Nominate 2 teammates to serve as fundraising chairpersons.

Parents can serve as advisors for this project, but don't take it over from the kids.  If the team really needs money that badly, the teammates should care enough to take on this project themselves.  Let the team nominate the most motivated, organized teammates to head the project.

2.  Have the team pick the 20-25 local business they patronize most often.

Hold a team meeting and ask each member to write down the five local business that they visit (and spend money) most often.  Where do you and your friends eat pizza?  Where do you buy gas?  Where do you see movies?  What clothing stores do you frequent the most?  Compare everybody's lists and pick the 20-25 businesses that appear most often.

3.  Write letters (not emails!) to the businesses asking for sponsorships. 

Write each business a letter (you can re-use parts of the letter but each one should be personalized to each particular business).  Make sure it's a letter–email is too quick, too easy, and much more likely to be deleted.

Here's what should be in the letter.

  • An introduction.  Tell them where you go to high school and what team you play for.
  • Explain that you are approaching local businesses looking for sponsorships.  Tell them why do you need the money, what you are you going to use it for, and what is your goal is
  • Explain that the team met and picked the businesses they frequent most often.  Then tell this business specifically why they made the list.  "We like your pizza much better than Pizza Hut's, and we have all our team dinners with you, too" or "Every member of our team buys a smoothie at your store at least once a week–my favorite flavor is banana raspberry, by the way."  
  • Offer to do something for them in return to help them promote their business.  Suggest things you can do, like have a parent hand out coupons for 1/2 off smoothies at each one of your games for a sponsorship of $500.  Or have the whole team where t-shirts promoting the business on game days for a sponsorship of $1000.  

Here's a big one. For a sponsorship of $5,000, make a promise to the business that every team member and her parents will buy all of your gas or smoothies or pizza from the sponsoring business for a period of 1 year (you could make up little cards with the team name to give the manager every time you buy, so he or she knows how much business you're giving them).  

I'm a small business owner, and I can tell you that a smart business will see that this math works in their favor.  15 players on a team means about 40 potential customers if you include parents.  If each of those 40 customers bought just 6 large pizzas in a year, the pizza joint would make its $5000 back. And those customers will inevitably bring in more business in the form of friends who aren't even on the team.  For the right business, it's both a profitable decision and a chance to do right by kids in the community.

You could also allow a business to suggest an idea for a particular sponsorship (you don't necessarily have to do what they suggest, for the amount the suggest, but they can at least suggest it).

  • Have a reply form where they can choose their option, and make one of the options "Please contact me to discuss."  Include a stamped reply envelope and hand-write a return address where they can send the form and a check. 
  • Once you get your funds, assign 5 different team members (not the fundraising chair persons–they're doing enough) to be in charge of contacting the businesses, thanking them, and coordinating the promotion of their business.
  • Throughout the season, take pictures of your team promoting the business.  Get a group shot of all of you in front of your lockers at school wearing the local deli's t-shirts.  Snap a photo of the fans holding up their coupons for half priced smoothies.  Take a picture of the starting center eating two slices of the sponsoring pizza place's pizza at the same time.  Have some fun with it.  Once every couple weeks, email a few of the photos to the store managers so they can see you in action.
  • At the end of the season, pick the 2 or 3 most artistic members of the team (OK, or the most artistic parents if no member of the team is artistic) to make a nice collage with a photo of the team signed by the players, a big thank-you for sponsoring them, and a collection of the photos you took of the promotion.  This shows the partnership–they helped you and you helped them.  And it's something that a local business can put up on their wall proudly. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  It's too hard.  It will take too long.  It's not worth the effort.  I get that.  But if it's not worth the effort for you, then why should the local business sponsor you?  What's in it for them, really?  I think businesses should support the communities that support them, but why not set it up so both parties benefit? 

If you do this and it works for both parties, you haven't just secured a one-time small donation.  You've created a partner in the community, a business who will follow and support your team, and one who won't need to be convinced to sponsor you again next year.

You'll make more money for your team, you'll gain a long-term team supporter in the community, and you'll have a great story to tell colleges. 

SAT vs. ACT

Here's something my friend Paul from The Princeton Review taught a group of students and parents at "College Night" last week.

Kids who like math much more than English tend to prefer the SAT.  Kids who like English much more than math tend to prefer the ACT.

Why?  As Paul put it,

"Because the SAT is 1/3 math.  The ACT is 1/4 math.  And if you don't understand what I just said, you should take the ACT." 

Looks can be deceiving

My accountant is the most responsible and successful people I’ve ever met.  But he used to spend spring breaks with his fraternity in Rosarito, Mexico sleeping in tents on the beach. 

That’s nothing compared to the college shenanigans of my lawyer and my liability insurance agent.  Sure, they’re buttoned-down, successful family men today.  But I know some college stories about them that aren’t so responsible.  In fact, I have first hand knowledge of their exploits. 

I went to college at UC-Irvine with all of these guys. 

Long before we ever scheduled official lunch meetings to discuss tax implications, copyright law or workers compensation insurance, we spent our college years living together, playing intramural basketball, cramming for finals, playing video games, cooking spaghetti ten different ways, embarrassing each other in front of our girlfriends and, yes, going to our share of (good) college parties.

Don’t get me wrong.  All of us had goals to make successful post-college lives for ourselves.  So we made sure to get our work done.  But that was no reason to pass up late night basketball games once we learned how to slip (read "trespass") into the gym unnoticed after hours.  We’d play until midnight, cap off the evening with cold “refreshments” at our apartment, and then get up and go to class the next day.

None of us left college with an Ivy League degree to flaunt to future employers.  UC-Irvine doen’t have Harvard name-brand prestige.  But we spent four years at the right college.  And look where we are today.   

The accountant and the lawyer are both partners in their respective firms.  The insurance agent owns his own insurance company.  And one of us started Collegewise (and is writing this blog entry).  The old basketball team seems to be doing just fine.   

Colleges don’t make kids successful—kids have to do that themselves.  But the right college can be the catalyst to turn youthful potential into grown-up success. 

We didn't need a school at the top of the US News college rankings to make us successful.  Nobody does.  Wherever you go to college, use that time to find your academic interests, to discover your talents.  And for goodness sake, have some fun while you're there, too.  We're happy with our lives but I'd be lying if I told you we didn't miss our late night basketball games every now and then.  They were an important part of our college experience    

Anyone who looked at how my buddies and I spent our days in college might think we weren’t learning, but we were.  In college, looks can be deceiving.  

Lessons taught at “Preparing for College Night”

I spoke to a group of eighth grade parents last week about the college admissions process they'll soon be facing as their kids move into high school.  Here are the five tips I shared with them at the end of the talk.

1. Kids should take the most challenging courses they can reasonably handle.
The more rigorous her high school classes, the better prepared a student will be for college academics.  A college will be more impressed by a student who earns B’s in difficult courses than they will by a student who earns A’s in easy ones.  A student should not, however, challenge himself so much that he loses sleep, sanity, or the ability to enjoy his activities.  Hard work is good.  Academic-induced misery is not.    
 
2. Students should study (a little) for standardized tests. 

Standardized tests like the SAT or ACT are an important part of the admissions process at many colleges.  But they are never the most important part.  Taking a course, or buying a book, and doing some focused preparation is a good idea.  But turning into a professional test-taker and spending inordinate time and money just takes kids away from their classes and activities.

3. Encourage kids to choose activities they love.
There are no prescribed extracurricular activities that “look good” to colleges.  Colleges just want kids with passion. If your student loves soccer, encourage him to play on the team, to go to soccer camp, to referee games, and take his interest as far as he would like to.  The same goes for artists, musicians, stamp collectors, kids who are involved in youth group and those who love their part time jobs.  As long as the activity is not covered by the criminal code, colleges will be impressed if a kid really commits himself to it. 

4. Don’t rule out any college because the sticker price is too high.
Not everybody on an airplane pays the same price for a ticket.  The same can be said of students and the price of attending their particular colleges.  There are billions of dollars in financial aid available and plenty of places where you can learn how to get it.   Two of the best sources of information and advice I’ve seen are www.finaid.org (it’s a treasure trove of free information about financial aid and scholarships) and the book “Paying for College Without Going Broke” by Kalman A. Chany. 

5. Be careful who you listen to about college admissions. 
Whenever a parent asks me a college admissions question that begins with, "I heard that…," two things are usually true about the statement that follows.  1)  It's wildly inaccurate, and, 2) It comes from a source that is in no way associated with college admissions.  I don't take advice on dental hygiene from my stockbroker, and you shouldn't take college admissions advice from your friends and neighbors.   Admissions officers, counselors and other professionals are reliable sources of college-related information.  Most other people are not.  Seek out and accept information from those in the know.   

Information seeking

Have you visited the websites of the colleges that interest you (or that interest your kids)?  I'm often surprised by how few families have. 

It's good to be an information seeker when it comes to colleges.  You can't sit back and wait for people to hand you the information you need to find, apply and pay for college today.  That's why the colleges' own websites are your best friends. 

Most of colleges' sites do a very good job of detailing everything from what curriculum they recommend to prepare for admission, to what standardized tests to take, to what forms to fill out for admission and financial aid.

If you want to know what a college requires, their website is the first place you should go.

Your high school counselor can give you good information, too.  So can an admissions representative at a college fair, or a professional private counselor with the right experience.  But the most important information will be available any time, for free, by just visiting the colleges' websites.

If you feel like you need more guidance about what colleges are looking for, a little information-seeking via their websites will clear up a lot of your confusion. 

No excuses

I worked with a student who once lamented to me that the police in his neighborhood were so "bored" that they'd given him three speeding tickets in one month. 

What?  You're blaming the police?

Then his parents told me, "Can you believe how unlucky he is?  To get three speeding tickets in one month!"

Again…what???

One of the most important skills a person can have is the ability to admit fault.  Take responsibility.  Own up to your mistakes and apologize if you've hurt anybody.

It's so easy to do, and it will go so far towards making you more likeable, responsible, and trustworthy.

Excuses rarely make someone like and respect you more.  And it's not likely to work on colleges, either. 

Moving the goalposts

Exclusivity breeds popularity. 

The more exclusive the
night club, the more we wish we could get inside (and the longer the
lines outside will grow). 

The popular kids in high school aren't necessarily the nicest or the smartest–it's
the air of exclusivity that makes them popular (an air that disappears
approximately two-and-a-half minutes after graduation, but still…). 

When celebrities were seen wearing ugg
boots, the prices and the demand soared to a
point that for a time, the boots were very difficult to get.  The harder they were to find (and pay for), the more people wanted to wear them.

The night clubs and the cool kids and the uggs aren't necessarily better than their counterparts.  They just benefit from the part of human nature that makes us desire something more if we can't get it. 

The most exclusive colleges, and their associated popularity, work the same way.

There are over 2,000 colleges to go around.  We are lucky to be living
in a country with the best, most accessible system higher education in
the world.  No matter what you read in the press about how hard it is
to get into college, just about any kid can go. 

But the same 50 schools keep getting more and more competitive, with greater numbers of highly qualified applicants vying to gain admission every year.   The more difficult it is to get in, the stronger our desire to go to those schools (or see our kids go to them).  We believe there must be something special about those places because so few people are invited to attend.  That's why when you hear people talk about the "best schools," they're almost certainly basing that analysis on one factor–how difficult it is to get in. 

Kids today are working harder, studying more, and sleeping less in an effort to get into what amounts to an exclusive collegiate nightclub whose very appeal is the fact they reject most of their applicants.  That's an academic arms race in which no amount of hard work and success can guarantee victory.

What if we moved the goalposts?  What if we encouraged kids to work hard with a different goal in mind, one that won't need the validation of an admission offer from an exclusive college.

A kid who works hard in challenging classes, who studies for his SATs, who makes an impact in his activities, who’s nice to his peers and respectful of his teachers will be better educated.  He will be more mature.  He'll probably have a better sense of his real intellectual interests and inherent talents. He will be more prepared to succeed during and after college.    That should be reason enough to do it.  That kid doesn't need an admission to an exclusive college to prove his worth (or his parents' worth).  

He will, of course, also be admitted to hundreds of colleges.  Most of the 2000 colleges will trip over themselves for this kid.  But if it's not UC Berkeley, or Yale, or Duke, or Stanford, or Pomona, he hasn't failed.  He'll still go to a college where he will use his talents and abilities to make a success of himself.  

I have nothing against the popular schools; I'm against kids and parents putting too much luster on them just because they're exclusive.  There are lots of valid reasons to work hard and improve yourself, but trying to get the popular colleges to like you shouldn't be one of them

It might be time for some different goals.

Can you teach it back?

The best way to learn something is to get to a point where you could teach it to someone else.

When the University of California first announced their new eligibility requirements, I was asked to explain them to a group of students and parents at a local high school.  I'd already read all the material and was comfortable that I understood the changes.  But getting ready to teach other people about it meant I needed to decide what information deserved the most attention, figure out how to best explain it, and try to anticipate what questions families might have.  I understood it all much better as a result of that process.

Preparing to teach something is a great example of active learning.  You can't just passively review the material.  You've got to be actively engaged, testing yourself as you go along to make sure you're ready to explain it to someone else. 

The next time you're studying for a test, imagine you had to go in the next day and teach the material to your class.  How would you explain it?  What would focus on?  What parts might generate a lot of questions from your classmates, and how would you answer them?  In fact, what If you did that every night as you did your homework?  If you pretended every night that you were going to have to go in and teach the material the next day, how much better would you understand it? 

And how much time would you really need to spend studying for your next test?

If you're prepared to teach it, you'll be prepared to take a test on it.

Don’t be a title collector

In their efforts to impress colleges, a lot of students become title collectors. 

They're driven to accomplish things so they can list them on their resumes.  And when they apply to college, they can't wait to rattle off their list of leadership positions held, awards won, and total number of community service hours completed.

But titles aren't unique.  They're everywhere.  You're not going to impress a college with a long list of titles alone.  It's much more important to make an impact. 

Every school paper has an editor-in-chief.  But not every school paper has a section editor who takes a journalism class at a college and then offers to share the material with the rest of the writers on the paper once he completes the course.

Every basketball team has a captain.  But not every basketball team has a point guard who organizes informal practices during the summer so they can run the team's new offense.

Every student body government has a president.  But not every student government has a treasurer who researches examples of effective high school student governments and shares ideas with the president about how they can better serve the students.

Every high school musical has a lead.  But not every high school musical has a lighting tech who hosts a viewing of the Broadway production of the musical (on DVD) at her house the weekend before opening night. 

Every orchestra has a first chair violinist.  But not every orchestra has a second chair oboe player who convinces the conductor of the local community symphony to come to one of their music classes to talk about life as a professional musician. 

Every high school physics class has a student with the highest grade.  But not every physics class has a B student who organizes an all-star team of classmates to compete in the county-wide high school physics Olympics. 

There's nothing wrong with titles.  A lot of them are bestowed upon hard-working, passionate students who are making an impact.  But don't become the editor or the president or the captain just so you can say you held the title.  Your goal should be to make an impact first. 

The collection of titles will almost certainly follow.