It’s more important to be interested than it is to be interesting

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During my first year on the Stanford faculty in 1988, I sought out professor John Gardner for guidance on how I might become a better teacher. Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, founder of Common Cause, and author of the classic text Self-Renewal, stung me with a comment that changed my life.

'It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,' he said. 'Why don't you invest more time being interested.'"

Jim Collins
Stanford Business School

That's good advice for high school students, too.  Stop worrying about whether or not colleges will appreciate what you're doing.  If you're sincerely interested in what you're learning and how you're spending your time, you'll become more interesting to colleges. 

Two great gifts parents can give teens

I've got two teen gift ideas for parents.  Both are free and neither will be socially or technologically passe six months from now.

Our system of education and the process of applying to college virtually guarantee that kids are feeling judged and evaluated all the time.  They're judged in school by how well they perform in their classes.  They're measured by tests like state assessments and APs and SAT/ACT exams.  They're evaluated by coaches and the people who make decisions about who plays the first violin, who gets the lead in the play and who is put in charge of the club fundraiser. From the moment kids enter high school, they can feel their entire existence in and out of class being measured and evaluated by the colleges (even if that's not the reality, kids certainly feel that way).

So parents, here are my two gift suggestions.

1)  Let them take breaks and be kids.

Evaluation and judgment aren't all bad for kids; successful people know that part of getting ahead is working hard and impressing the people in charge.  But kids still need to be teenagers and occasionally do things that are just for them, things that have absolutely no application to the college admissions process.  So let them regularly take breaks and be kids.  Let them have downtime that's just for them.  I don't care how goofy or unproductive the way they choose to spend that time might be.  Don't evaluate it.  Don't judge it.  As long as it isn't covered by the criminal code, just let them have it for themselves.   

2) Make home and family the one place where kids aren't constantly being measured.

There aren't a lot of places kids can go today where they're told they're great just the way they are.  Make home that place.  Make your family the one audience who isn't constantly measuring, judging and evaluating your kids.

You've still got to be a parent, set rules, and chastise your kid when he neglects to take out the garbage.  But if you tell him that all he has to do to make you proud is try his best, be nice to people and come home at the end of the day, he'll be more likely to do all three.

A $50,000 scenario for high school students

High school students, imagine this scenario:

You just got word that you have two hours to complete a five-page paper in which you describe your high school experience and dispense advice for incoming high school freshmen.  If you finish it within the allotted time, your essay will be evaluated by a reader.  And if it's good enough, you'll win $50,000. 

Obviously, you'd take the challenge.  But given the stakes, what additional steps would you take to make sure you got it done on time and that the paper was as good as you could make it?

  • Would you tell your family you need to be undisturbed for the next two hours?
  • Would you turn off your phone?
  • Would you close out your email and your IM and your Facebook page?
  • Would you find a different place to go where you were absolutely sure you could work in peace, like the library?
  • Would you concentrate intensely for the entire two hours and set aside everything else until the paper is done?

I bet you would.

So, why not do those things when you study or do your homework?   

A good source for study tips and test-taking advice

I've shared Cal Newport's blog here before but wanted to point something specific out about it.

Make sure you check the sidebar at the right under the heading, "Looking for Help on A Specific Problem?"  There, you'll find his blog posts categorized into subjects like, "Fighting procrastination," "Note-taking," "Organization," "Studying," "Test-taking," and "Time Management."

Some of his material is dense and takes awhile to get through.  But if you apply the tips he gives you, I think you'll find his advice is always helpful. 

Parents, it’s OK not to share

Parents at a dinner party would probably never ask you about:

1)  How much money you make.

2)  What your house is worth.

3)  What you paid in taxes this year.

4)  Sensitive medical issues.

5) Personal family problems.

So, why would it be acceptable to compare your kids' test scores, college lists, and admissions outcomes?

The next time a fellow parent tries to turn their student's college application process into a status competition, feel free to just say, "We're really excited for our daughter and will support whatever decision she makes. 

Some things are OK not to share.

Sometimes even the experts miss the point

Jacques Steinberg is the author of "The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process at A Premier College," and the editor of the New York Times blog "The Choice: Demystifying College Admissions and Aid."

Unfortunately, I think he missed the point when he was on the Today Show recently discussing college essays. 

One applicant wrote in the essay, 

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John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…

John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions…"

Steinberg commented:

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That applicant misjudged the age and sensibility of the admissions committee.  You're dissing John Lennon and Imagine over Glee.  And there's a good chance there's some people in that room that probably appreciated the John Lennon version." 

I don't think the problem with that essay had anything to do with the age and sensibility of the admissions officers.  The problem with that essay is that the student is taking him/herself a little too seriously.  John  Lennon is a musical icon whose music has survived over 40 years and will probably be around for another 40.  Glee is a TV show that will likely have a much shorter life span. It's fine if you like the Glee version more than John's version.  But it would have been a little more endearing if the student acknowledged that she's probably in the minority with that opinion. 

What if the applicant had written:

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My parents are going to kill me for saying this, but I just can't get on board with John Lennon.  They tell me that he's the greatest song writer that's ever lived.  My mother still owns all of The Beatles' vinyl albums and can't imagine what the 60's would have been like without them.  But frankly, I thought Glee's version of Imagine was a lot catchier than Lennon's.  I just hope my parents will still speak to me if they read this."

See the difference?

You don't have to guess what admissions officers will and won't like.  You just have to be yourself and show some quality of thinking, a mature perspective in which you recognize that the world extends beyond yourself.  And if you like Glee more than you like The Beatles, that's fine. 

 

How to handle “No”

I once received an email from an editor who'd submitted her resume for a job opening at Collegewise, and she did everything but call me an idiot for deciding not to interview her.  When she demanded to know my reasons, I pointed out the typos in her resume.  She apologized, but when you handle rejection that badly, it's over for the other party.

I've written before about how kids can handle college rejections.  But we all face the risk of hearing "No."  When a student applies for a summer job, he might hear a "No."  When a private counselor is being interviewed by a prospective family, the family might ultimately say, "No" and choose someone else.  Independent high schools and colleges hear "No" all the time from students they accepted who ultimately choose to learn someplace else. 

When you hear "No," you've got a choice to make.  You can voice your disagreement. You can criticize the other party's decision making process.  You can get angry, point out every reason why they're making a mistake, and appeal for reconsideration (which almost never works).

Or you could look at it as an opportunity to leave them singing your praises.

You could sincerely thank them for their consideration and for the time they invested in you.  You could praise their decision and tell them that while you're disappointed, you can certainly understand why they made the choice they did.  You could tell them what you learned during the process and what you're going to do differently as a result of it.  And most importantly, you could let them know that you'll still be around if they ever need you in the future. 

The second approach leaves a much better chance of you getting invited back for a new opportunity (or if the choice they made falls through).  You'll leave a great last impression, one that just might lead to them to recommend you to a friend or colleague who might be a better fit.  And you'll actually feel better.

How you handle a "No" says a lot about you.  And it improves your chances of getting a "Yes" in the future.

10 holiday reading recommendations

If you've got some downtime during the holidays and are looking for a good read, here are ten of my favorites from 2010 that I thought might pique the interest of students, parents or counselors.   

BornToRunBorn to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougal

A tribe of Indians in Mexico who routinely run up to 200 miles wearing homemade sandals–and they do it because they love it.  It's a good reminder for students that you can accomplish some pretty incredible things when you love what you're doing. 

 

Rework Rework
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

For counselors, it's a great book about how to run a better business (or department) and get more work done in less time.

 

 

HowToBeAHighSchoolSuperstar How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out)
Cal Newport

I don't agree with the central message of the book that any student can somehow follow a program that leads them to greatness (as evidenced by his examples, superstar students become that way by not following a formula, but by pursuing their real interests).  Still, pages 51-76 about study habits and time-management should be required reading for all high school students.  

Linchpin Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
Seth Godin

I'm a Seth Godin fan and I admit that I was a little disappointed after my first read of this.  His discussion of the lizard brain in all of us and how it rises up to sabotage us felt a little too much like it belonged in the "Self-Help" section of the bookstore. But it stayed with me enough that I've since read it again and I think that if you can hang in there through the lizard discussion, the central message of the book is a crucial one–you don't need anyone's permission to do great work and make something happen.  If you're not doing it, what are you waiting for? 

MeatballSundae Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing out of Sync?
Seth Godin

Another Seth Godin book I'd recommend to any business owner.  The internet has changed not only what people buy, but also how they buy them (remember when people used to pay a travel agent to find good travel deals?).  And yet a lot of business are trying to sell the same old stuff using the newest marketing.  That's a meatball Sundae.  You don't just need new marketing–you need new stuff.

LessStressMoreSuccess Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond
Marilee Jones and Kenneth R. Ginsburg

While the first half of the book offers up sound, practical advice for parents from a former Dean of Admissions at MIT, the second half is complex discussion by a psychologist that read too much like a textbook to me.  Still, I'd recommend (the first half of) the book to parents. 

 

DebtFreeUDebt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents
Zac Bissonnette and Andrew Tobias

A must read for the cost-conscious college shopper.  It's also got the best, most thorough critique of the US News college rankings I've ever read.

 

 

 

DeliveringHappiness Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
Tony Hsieh

Zappos founder Tony Hsieh is a pretty fascinating guy.  He's a serial entrepreneur who's been starting businesses since he was in elementary school, and this is his story of how he built Zappos, what the company stands for, and how they've managed to revolutionize selling goods on the internet.

 

 

MadeToStick Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Chip Heath and Dan Heath

After I read this book, I had to go back and re-write all my seminar descriptions and rethink how I present information in talks.

 

 

MyAppetite My Appetite for Destruction: Sex, and Drugs, and Guns N' Roses
Steven Adler

To make my list all about business and college admissions would be a) taking myself too seriously and b) not entirely representative of what I read.

Steven Adler is the former drummer from Guns and Roses.  There is not a single productive takeaway for students, parents or counselors (other than, well, don't do heroin)–this one is all trash.  But reading books like this is the closest I'll ever get to being a rock star.  I read Slash's autobiography, too.  

And while I'm at it, I've also got a subscription to People Magazine.

 

For seniors with unfinished applications

A lot of high school seniors are starting their winter vacation today.  And many of them will be up late on December 31st racing to meet college application deadlines, frantically listing their activities, pasting in their essays, and submitting work at the the last minute they know would have been better had they just had more time.  That's a terrible way to finish the application process, and you can easily avoid it.

Starting today, make more time.

You have time.  You have plenty of it.  Starting today, work like your hair is on fire.  Dive into the most difficult of your essays and pretend it's due in 24 hours.  Swear off your holiday fun until you've finished your applications.  Don't let yourself be one of those poor souls who always has to look back and wonder if your applications would have been better if you'd just had more time.

You've still got time.  Start making more of it today. 

The Collegwise student manifesto

GPAs, test scores and activities never tell the full story of a student.  There are lots of kids with perfect grades who don't particularly like to learn.  Plenty of intelligent kids have average test scores.  And a student who does 200 hours of community service at a hospital because his parents forced him to do it isn't quite the philanthropist his resume makes him out to be.

That's why a student's future success is based far more on personal factors like attitude, work-ethic, and initiative than it is on any one piece of information on a college application. 

I'm not sure that you can force kids to adopt any particular personal characteristics.  But you can encourage them and show them the way.  So we're trying to do that with our Collegewise Student Manifesto. These are the kinds of behaviors and attitudes that we encourage from our students.  They also are the very same characteristics colleges love to see in applicants.  Kids who embrace them have more fufillng high school lives and more successful college application processes.  Those are the Collegewise kids. 

These ideas aren't just for kids in our Collegewise program–I think any student who wants to take a more productive and enjoyable approach to college admissions can gain something from this.  So feel free to share or repost it if you think your students would benefit.