Meant to be

Most kids feel like they're attending the college they were meant to attend.  Some just take a little longer to realize it than others.

Several years ago, I was invited back to my alma mater, UC-Irvine, as the keynote speaker at the freshman orientation program.  In the audience were several hundred new freshmen and their parents.  I wanted to grab their attention, so I decided to cut to the chase say,

“You know, I’ll bet a lot of you really wanted to go to UCLA.”

It got a good laugh, but a few months earlier when the rejection letters from UCLA arrived home, they probably wouldn't have found it that funny.

So I told them the truth. When I was eighteen, I sat in those very same seats and knew that I really wanted to be about 40 miles north in Westwood.  So did a lot of my fellow freshmen.  I told them that it had been that way at UCI for a long time and that, while every year, more and more freshman pick UCI as their first choice, an equal number really wanted to be Bruins.

Then I gave them the good news.

I told them that they just faced the largest and most competitive applicant pool in UCI’s history to get there and that they should feel proud to be sitting in that room.   I reminded them that after one quarter on UCI’s campus, none of the freshmen would be talking about UCLA anymore.  In fact, I made a promise that, at the end of the orientation weekend when they prepared to move into their new dorms, none of them were going to be thinking about UCLA anymore.  Most kids end up at the right schools, and whether they knew it not, they were meant to be at UC-Irvine.

I told them that it was time for them to start making the most of the next four years, and that their college careers started "today."

Nearly five hundred new freshmen and their parents smiled collectively, let out a deep breath and applauded (which is admittedly great for a public speaker like me with an ego the size of a small planet). 

There is no better feeling than seeing several hundred new college freshmen smiling, excited, and eager to embark on their four-year college adventure.  And that same look will be on the faces of most of the college freshmen at over 2,500 colleges across the country this fall. 

Kids, for the most part, like where they go to college.   Sure, not everybody gets admitted to his first choice, but when you put a college freshman in a place with a bunch of fellow eighteen year-olds and tell him that all he has to do is learn and have fun for four years, it’s amazing how fast a kid forgets about whether or not he got into his first choice.  

That’s just the way that college was meant to be.

Have you got swagger?

I worked with a student once who had all the characteristics you need to get into the most selective colleges.  Perfect grades, perfect test scores, a voracious appetite for learning, an excitement about all the opportunities waiting for him in college, likeable, self-effacing, and most importantly, he had a little–just a little–swagger.

I say "a little" swagger because outright arrogance is never a good trait.  But a student who's actually smart enough, motivated enough and hungry enough for the challenges of attending a highly selective college has a sense of confidence about him or herself.

Getting into college is a lot like dating.  Nobody likes the meek person who pines away for someone from afar.  Confidence is contagious.  People want to be around it.

The kid who applies to all the Ivy League schools because they're "good schools" doesn't have any swagger.  He's pretending he does by applying to only reach schools, but he's really just hoping one of them says yes. That's like asking 10 beautiful women to the prom and acting confident while you do it.  Everybody knows you're just hoping for one to agree to go with you.  It's really more desperate than confident. 

The kid who worries that his life will be over if Princeton says "No"?  Guess what–no swagger there.

The kid who makes all his decisions in high school based on what he thinks Stanford wants?  Nope–no swagger there, either.

The kid who works like crazy because he wants to be successful at whatever he tries, the kid who gets A's but really just wants to be challenged and intellectually stimulated as much as possible, the kid who can't wait to go to college and knows that wherever he ends up, both he and the college will be equally lucky–Now, that kid's got some swagger.

My former student showed his swagger during one of our meetings when he said,

"I figure if I can leave college with a degree in electrical engineering and four years playing division I water polo, I'll be unstoppable."  It wasn't arrogant–he was right. 

He didn't say, "If I get into Stanford..."  He knew his future success wasn't predicated on him attending a highly selective college.  He knew he was going to do it.  That's swagger.

And like all of our students who've attended highly selective colleges, there was no doubt in my mind that this kid was going all the way.

He went to Stanford and today is thriving at a capital management firm.  I don't understand a single word of his job description, but I'm sure he does.  

If you want to get in and succeed at one of those 40 famous colleges that reject most of their applicants, you'll need a little swagger.  

A college admissions secret

Did you know that colleges love stamp-collectors?  They go just crazy for stamp collectors.  Can't get enough of 'em.     

OK, I'm kidding (a little).  Colleges don't have a special affinity for stamp-collectors any
more than they do any other activity.  What colleges love is passion. I
t
really doesn't matter what your passion is–dance, art, sports,
reading, rodeo, student government, working a part time job at a burger
joint, juggling, magic or, yes, stamp collecting.  A kid becomes much
more interesting to an
admissions officer when that student is genuinely passionate about her activities.

Colleges would, in fact, appreciate a student who was super-serious about stamps.  The more into it you were, the better. They'd like the kid who visits stamp shows on the weekends, who reads stamp-collector magazines, who belongs to stamp-collecting organizations, who takes classes and writes articles for stamp-collector newsletters.

So go after your passions.  Celebrate them.  Take them to a reasonable and productive extreme.  And don't worry whether the colleges will like them.  If it's important to you, and you inject your intellect, talent and energy into it to make something happen for yourself or others, the colleges will care about it, too (as long as it isn't illegal). 

And when you apply to college, share your passions–in the applications, in the essays, and during your interviews.  Help the colleges learn about them.  Don't keep them secret.  

What are you going to be when you grow up?

Some people think the only way to be a success is to go to a famous
college.  Some people think you have to know what you want to do before
you go to college so you can pick the right major.  I've never believed either
of those to be true.

Here's an example. 

One particular
student worked at Arby's in high school and took ballet lessons.  He won
a dance scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet but turned it down to attend
Sarah Lawrence College because of its strong dance program.  He
graduated with a degree in liberal arts. 

Today, that former
ballet dancer and Sarah Lawrence grad is the White House Chief of Staff,
Rahm
Emanuel

I'm not saying you should or shouldn't admire his
politics or how he goes about his job–this isn't a political post. 

But
I am saying that he's a good example of a successful person who never
knew what he wanted to be when he was 18, and how the right (and not
particularly famous) college played a role in helping him find his
future path.

Thanks to Katie
for the great college trivia.

Mental health tips for parents of the college-bound

Parents inevitably share the stress of the college application process (sometimes you may unwittingly be the source of it, but that's a different blog entry). 

When the SAT scores don't go up as much as you'd hoped or when the C on the geometry test comes home, parents feel that stress.  When you hear all your friends talking about how hard it is for kids to get into college today, you take on that stress.  The stakes feel so high that the passage from high school to college has become a something of a bootcamp that kids and parents just hope to survive.

Parents, if you feel yourself wondering if it really needs to be this hard (the answer is "No," by the way), here's an exercise that might help. Ask yourself these ten questions.   

1.  If you got together tonight with your old high school friends, what stories would you likely reminisce over?

2.  Same question, but with your college friends. 

3.  What's the most irresponsible thing you did back in high school or college, the kind of thing that seems a world away from your responsible, parental self today? 

4.  In what class(s) did you struggle in the most?  

5.  What was your most colossal failure in high school and in college?

6.  What was the most fun you remember having in high school or college (no surprise, really, if it's the same as your answer to #3).

7.  What's something you did in high school or college (or both) that you would be embarrassed to admit to your kids today?

8.  If you could re-live one week of your high school years, what week would you relive?

9.  Same question as #8, but for your college years.

You're inevitably conjuring up memories of fun, frivolity, and failure.  And you can hopefully laugh about most or all of them because, after all, you were a kid.  We all were at one time.   And nobody has an adult's mindset at age 16 or 18 or 22.  Part of being a kid means doing things that you laugh about once you're a responsible adult.   

So, here's my final question. 

You turned out OK after just being a kid and not worrying quite so much about test scores and whether or not an Ivy League school would accept you.  What makes you think your kids won't, too?

Please don’t play the multiple deposit game

Seniors who've been admitted to several desirable colleges need to make some difficult decisions next month, as colleges require admitted students to declare their intention to enroll by May 1.  It can be a stressful time especially for a student who is really struggling with the decision. But whatever you do, don't try to cheat your way to more time by placing multiple deposits.

Some families plunk down deposits at multiple colleges in an attempt to buy a little more time for their kids to choose which college to attend.  The thinking is that you can hold your spot at a few schools and then back out of the additional schools when you eventually name the chosen one.

This is bad idea for a number of reasons. 

I know that this is your search process and you shouldn't make decisions based on other people.  But when you place multiple deposits, you're taking spots that other kids desperately want.  That's not a nice thing to do. 

Also, deadlines are real.  And sometimes, we have to make difficult decisions under time pressure because of those deadlines.  Successful people accept this and find a way to get things done when they need to be done.  The truth is that you're unlikely to gain any additional clarity surrounding your college
choices by (literally) buying another week or two to think about it.  Take the allotted time to consider your options, but make your decision by May 1. 

And most importantly, if you place a deposit at more than one college and any of your schools find out that you're doing this, they can revoke your offer of admission (even if they're the school you eventually did choose).  College admissions officers take violations like this very seriously.  Imagine how a boss would react if she extended a job offer to someone and found out that he'd been dishonest with her during the interview process.  What if she found out he'd misled other companies with whom he'd interviewed.  Wouldn't that taint his reputation and cause the boss to take back his job offer, even if all of his credentials were still legitimate?  That's how colleges feel when they find out an accepted student was dishonest.

If they catch you lying (and that's what you're doing when you place multiple deposits), no college will care about your GPA or SAT scores or your certificate proclaiming that it was, in fact, you who discovered what really killed the dinosaurs.  You'll be out.   

I know what some of you are thinking. "How will a college possibly know if I place multiple deposits?"

Whatever the likelihood is that a college could discover it, is the risk worth the potential reward?  I don't think it is.

Lunch “brakes”

No one in the history of my hometown could drive from my high school’s parking lot to my family’s house faster than I could.  It wasn’t easy, safe or completely legal, but for three months during the spring of my senior year, I drove home every day at lunch to check the mailbox hoping to find the universal sign of college acceptance (pre-email of course)—the fat envelope—inside.

I would spend my first four periods of AP classes biting my nails, wondering if the postman was delivering news about where I would be spending the next four years in college.  But at 12:20, this anxious college applicant would jump behind the wheel.  And everybody on the road knew to get the hell out of the way.

I am no longer a fearless teenager willing to drive like a card-carrying member of the NASCAR circuit just to get to the mailbox and back before the start of fifth period AP Physics.   But high school kids (and parents) still anxiously wait out the months of March and April, checking the mail and email just to see if the suspense will end. 

College admissions is a lot more complicated than it used to be.  Kids today work harder, longer and under more pressure than I ever did.  But even during my racing period, my parents kept reminding me that I was going to college.  Whether it would be Michigan, Georgetown or UC Santa Cruz, I was still going to have a wonderful four years. 

That was good advice, and it still holds true for kids today.       

Good kids who work hard will always have a place in a college that’s right for them.  It's easy to lose sight of that with all the pressure of college admissions, especially when the decisions start to arrive and some of your favorite colleges say "No."

But when a high school senior signs on the dotted line and commits to attend a college in the fall, the feeling of relief, anticipation and success is just as great as it has always been.

For you seniors, all the wondering and worrying about where you might go to college will soon be replaced by the planning and packing
for where are going to college.  And the streets will officially be safer at lunchtime.  

So senior students and parents, hang in there.  The process might feel unbearable at times but even those of us who applied way back before the internet managed to get through it.  You will, too. 

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."