How to be a leader without a leadership position

Every high school has students in leadership positions–student council presidents, yearbook committees, and editors of the school papers. But you don't need to have a leadership position to be a leader.  Leaders rally people towards a better future together, and you don't have to be elected to do that.

Here are five examples of ways you can be a leader in your club or organization even if you haven't been elected to lead.

1.  Unstick a project.

Maybe your club, organization or team has a project that's been stuck, something that the group has been slow in accomplishing.  Why not make it your job to unstick it and get it done?  If it's too big for one person to do, be the one who takes on responsibility for driving the project forward and solicit volunteers to help you.

2.  Grow the group.

A lot of organizations need more members to really be successful.  Make it your mission to find and recruit new members and help the group grow.  Come up with creative ways to get the word out.  Organize activities designed to allow potential new members to learn more about what you all do, like a "Get-to-know-us" barbecue.  Approach people who you think might enjoy what your group does and invite them to come to a meeting.

3.  Solve a problem.

What's something that's slowing down your group's progress or inhibiting your success?  Make it your project to find a solution for the problem.  If your choir needs more sopranos, or your school newspaper needs more advertising, or the French club needs money for its annual luncheon, you could be the leader who solves that problem yourself (or organizes the team effort to do it).

4.  Organize all-star teams.

In a lot of clubs and organizations, teams of people come together based on who is interested in the project.  But those teams may or may not have the right people needed to get the project done.  What if you put a team together for a project based on the relative strengths of the members?  For example, if you're planning the homecoming dance, put an all-star team together.  The best math student can be in charge of keeping track of the money.  The most organized person can keep track of all the project's details.  The funniest member can actually have a job of doing comic relief and keeping peoples' spirits up when the stress builds.  And here's a bonus tip.  When you're putting together an all-star team, ask the quietest person in the group what he or she would like to do and encourage them to join you.  Sometimes it's the quiet people who have the most to contribute–they just haven't told anyone yet. 

5.  Put one of your own skills to use.

If you know how to make good websites, offer to make one for the drama club and put up clips of each of the members' best performances.  If you love to write, start an email newsletter for the student council and write articles are so useful and interesting that the student body will want to opt-in and read them.  If you can play guitar, put a small band together to play at the next club fair.  You're not leading a group, but you'll be leading by example as someone who's enthusiastic and committed to the group.

You don't need the title to be a leader.

Avoid this common FAFSA mistake

Any class of 2011 senior who wants to apply for college financial aid should now be completing the FAFSA form, availalbe here.  But here's a common mistake you can easily avoid. 

"You" and "Your" refers to the student, not the parent, unless the form specifically says otherwise. 

The FAFSA is written with the assumption that the student–not the parent–will be the one completing it.  But that's often not what happens.  Many parents fill out the FAFSA for their kids, which is fine, as financial aid is the one part of the college application process where I think it can be a good thing for parents to jump in and help or just take over completely.

So parents, if you're completing the FAFSA for your student, remember that the form wants your student's information (name, birth date, social security number, etc.) until you get to the section that specifically requests parent information. 

A 2011 marketing tip for private counselors

If you're a new private counselor hoping to get the word out and grow your business, here's what I'd do in 2011.

1. Pick a subject on which to become the local expert.

Sure, good counselors have to keep learning about all-things college admissions.  But there's always a need for expertise.  What if you made it your goal to become the local expert on great colleges for "B" and "C" students?  Or the best ways for student-athletes to get noticed by colleges?  Or which colleges offer generous financial aid, great services for kids with learning disabilities, or excellent drama programs?  Pick a subject that interests you and learn as much as you can about it.  Become the local expert.

2.  Share your newfound expertise.

A lot of business owners are scared to death to share what they know.  They're worried that someone else will steal their knowledge and become a competitor.  But business just doesn't work that way.  So once you've got your expertise, share it.  Write a blog.  Start a newsletter.  Do a free presentation at the local library.  Even better, propose a session at your NACAC affiliate.  The best way to convince people of your expertise is to share it with them. 

Once you do, they'll come back over and over again.

New year’s resolutions for students and parents

One year ago today, I posted some recommended new year's resolutions for high school students and their parents.  This seems like the right day to revisit those (some resoultions are worth remaking every year)

For students…

1. Be excited about the opportunity to go to college…any college. I'm not saying you should give up and just be happy with any college that takes you.  I'm saying that if you decide there are only three colleges where you could ever be happy, that puts an awful lot of pressure on yourself.  The hard work you're doing in and out of school shouldn't just be about trying to get into Stanford.  It should be about learning, finding your passions, and enjoying your teenage years.  Wherever you go to college, you're going to meet new people, learn and have fun. That's reason enough to be excited.  So, keep working hard, but try to enjoy yourself while you're doing it. 

2. Quit something worth quitting this year.   Almost everyone has something in their life that's not making your life any better, something in which you're just going through the motions, or that's actually making you unhappy or unhealthy.  Identify one of those things in your life and quit.  Quit it today and replace it with something that improves your life.  If you used to love swimming but now you secretly dread it every day, quit and take the art classes you've been dying to take.  If you're tired of hanging out with kids who aren't nice to each other, quit the group and find nicer friends.  The message here isn't to quit and do nothing.  It's to replace the thing you quit with something more positive and productive.  Happy and successful people do that all the time.

3. Stop getting caught up in high school drama.  Some parts of high school are wonderful.  Other parts, not so much–like the popularity contests, backbiting, and social insecurity.  The happiest and most well-adjusted students I've met don't engage in the negative dramas of high school.  They're happy being themselves and don't care what other people think of them.  They're nice to the kids other students aren't nice to.  They don't gossip or speak badly of their friends or worry about what's popular.  It's hard to disassociate from the social dramas of high school, but you'll be much happier if you do.  And believe me, once you get to college, you'll see for yourself just how petty a lot of the bad parts of high school really were.

4. Do more things for yourself that your parents have been doing for you.  When you make your parents do things for you that you can and should be doing for yourself, you're making it easy and maybe even necessary for them to run your life.  If you're having trouble in a class, don't make your parents contact the teacher.  If you have scheduling conflicts, don't make your parents talk to your counselor to resolve them.  If you have questions about a college's application requirements, don't make your parents get that information for you.  These are things you can and should be doing for yourself.  So start doing them.  You'll be happier, your relationship with your parents will improve, and the colleges will be appreciative of your independence. 

5.  Look for ways to make an impact. One of the best ways to feel good about yourself (and frankly, to get into college) is to find ways to make an impact.  You don't have to be the captain of your soccer team to host the team dinner.  You don't have to be the smartest kid in your English class to participate and contribute to class discussions.  And you don't have to be the editor of the school paper to take a journalism class over the summer and then share what you learned.  Titles, leadership positions and awards aren't the only ways to demonstrate that you're valuable and appreciated.  If you make efforts to contribute and try to make an impact, you'll feel good about how you're spending your time–and people around you will take notice.    

For parents…

Why not capitalize on the annually-renewed sense of self-improvement that comes with the New Year and make some resolutions that will help you not just survive, but actually enjoy your student's ride to college? 

Here are my top five college admissions-related resolution suggestions for parents.

1. Put college admissions in perspective. Your student's college future deserves to be taken seriously.  But if you're panicked because your son scored 1900 on the SAT and "that's just not good enough for Princeton," you've lost sight of the big picture.  Going to college is important.  Going to a famous college is not.  Don't make the acceptance into one particular school the end-goal.  Instead, celebrate your student's opportunity to attend college–any college.  Recognize it as just one step in what will be a lifetime process of education, growth and life experience.   And while you're at it, pat yourself on the back for raising a good kid who's college bound.     

2. Spend more time celebrating your student's strengths than you do trying to fix weaknesses.  The pressure surrounding college admissions often breeds far too much focus on kids' weaknesses.  "Her test scores are low."  "Her GPA isn't high enough."  "She doesn't have enough leadership."  Focusing too much on weaknesses just hurts kids' self-confidence.  Don't forget to celebrate strengths, victories and other achievements that are worthy of parental pride.  Is she great at her job at the daycare?  Is he well-respected by his peers at the church youth group?  When she didn't get the lead in the school play, did she cheerfully offer to run the lights instead?  You know your kid is a good kid–so take the time to acknowledge the reasons why.  And remember that a GPA, test score or decision from a particular college do not measure your student's worth (or your worth as a parent). 

3. Don't run with the wrong crowd.  Some parents seem intent on turning the college admissions process into a status competition.  These are not the parents you want at your next dinner party.  They talk about how many hours of community service their kid has done and how expensive the SAT tutor is that they're housing in the guest room this summer.  They ruin the ride to college for everybody and, sadly, they don't ever seem to find any joy in this process, even when the most desirable schools say "yes."  So don't join in.  Associate with other parents who care more that their kids end up happy in college than they do about whether or not those schools are Ivy League schools.  They're more fun to be around at dinner parties anyway.

4. Encourage your student to take responsibility for her own college process.  Being a supportive parent is something you should be proud of.  But you should resist the urge to do things for your student that she can do herself.  College-bound kids need to develop their own initiative and independence if they want to get in and be successful at college.  Let your kids approach teachers when they're struggling in class.  Let your kids talk to college representatives at college fairs.  Let your kids fill out their own college applications and write their college essays.  Parents can be supportive partners, but you shouldn't take over the process. 

5. Enjoy this time as much as possible.   The worst part of the frenzy surrounding the college admissions process is that it ruins what should be an exciting time for both parents and students. You're only going to go through this process once with each kid.  So enjoy it.  Resolve to find the joy in it.  A positive attitude won't make things like the SAT go away, but it will help you revel in the parts that should be fun, like visiting colleges, discovering new schools that fit your student well, and watching kids make the transition from home room to dorm room. 

Happy New Year…

One resolution suggestion

If you're making New Year's resolutions this year, I just have one suggestion for you:

Make sure at least one involves maximizing a strength, rather than fixing a weakness.

A lot of resolutions address perceived shortcomings like, "Lose 10 pounds," or "Stop biting my nails."  It's never bad to make changes that will improve your quality of life, but why not promise yourself to get even better at something you're already good at?

If you love writing, make a resolution to take a college writing class or to write a short story this year.

If you're a hockey player with a great slap shot, make a resolution to practice until you have the fiercest slap shot in the league this year.

If you're saxophone player, pick three songs that are too difficult for you to play now and promise to learn them this year.

If you're really good with people, promise to find a job or activity in which you work in or lead a team.

If you love math, why not resolve to follow a math class at MIT online, or to learn more about a famous mathematician, or to deliver your best student performance in trig this year?

If you really enjoy helping people, find a community service project that will actually let you do more than just file papers, like working closely with the residents at a shelter for abused women or volunteering with a mobile health care unit that visits the poorest areas of your town.

If you love doing magic tricks, start doing shows at kids' birthday parties.

If you're a cross country runner, pick a local 10K race that's open to the public and try to finish in the top 20 or top 10.  Or go all out and try to win it.

There's plenty of honor in spending time getting even better at something you're already good at.  It feels great.  And the most successful, fulfilled people are those who maximize their strengths.  Why not use at least one resolution to maximize yours this year? 

Tips for last-minute college applicants

Last year, over 2,500 panicked seniors arrived at our blog on December 30 as they raced to finish their applications before closing deadlines.  If you're one of those last-minute college applicants this year, here are five tips to help you channel that stress and power through.

1.  Don't beat yourself up.

Yes, you should have finished your college applications by now.  No, you shouldn't have waited until the last minute.  But beating yourself up about it isn't going to make your applications any stronger.  Second-guessing the choices you've made is the worst thing you can do to yourself when you're applying to college, especially now that the deadlines are so close.  This is the time to be confident and proud of everything you've done right.  Lots of successful people have put things off until the last minute and still accomplished what they set out to do.  Now is the time to be one of those people.

2.  Say less.

Some stressed applicants respond by trying to pack even more information onto the application.  They list activities that they barely remember and awards that mean much less to them then other accolades they've earned.  But sharing more just makes more work for yourself, more reading for admissions officers, and less a less compelling application.  So say less.  Focus your activities and awards to include only those things that really meant something to you.  When you're writing an essay about an experience, don't jam in deep meaning that wasn't there just to make the essay longer.  Be clear and concise. 

3.  Channel your stress into honest answers.

We've all seen movies where a tough detective gets a perpetrator to crack under the stress of questioning and just tell the truth.  You can use the stress of applications to do the same thing with your essays.  Before you start writing, just read the prompt and blurt out your honest answer, one that you'd only share with yourself.  If you were about to start the "What makes Stanford a great place for you?" question, you might blurt out, "I have no idea.  I spent so much time researching and visiting colleges that they all sound the same to me at this point."  Guess what?  That's not a bad start to an essay.  Really, it is.  It's not ideal, but it's better than launching into an essay of generalities. 

Honesty separates you from the other applicants who polished and re-polished their answers based on what they thought sounded impressive.  So before you write, do some blurting and see where that stress takes you.

4.  Remember that one error won't ruin you.

No, I don't advocate making careless errors in your application.  But it's important to understand that colleges aren't grading your application like an English teacher grades an essay.  No college in the universe will conclude that you are, in fact, a stupid person if you make one small typo (unless you spell the school's name wrong–oof).  Yes, proofread.  And have someone else proofread, too.  But at some point, you have to make peace with the fact that you can only review an application so many times before it's time to hit the "Submit" button. 

5.  Don't worry. 

Seriously, don't worry.  The process can feel like a life or death trial, but it's not.  For all the drama you have to contend with during the college application process, almost everyone gets in somewhere and ends up loving college.  If you keep that in mind while you're finishing your applications, you'll be more focused and more confident.  And you'll do a better job.   

For seniors: Avoid these common but embarrassing application mistakes

College admissions officers aren't out to get you.  Misplacing a comma or using "roll" instead of "role" aren't mistakes you want to make, but they're not going to get you rejected. 

But some application mistakes glaringly point out that you're reusing an essay from another application or that you must not be all that interested in this particular school.  Here are the three most common and embarrassing ones seniors must avoid.   

1.  Re-using an essay and forgetting to replace the school's name, as in writing in an essay to Northwestern, "Duke has everything I've been looking for in a college," or "That's why I can see myself spending four years in Cambridge" (where MIT is located) in an essay to Caltech (which is in sunny Pasadena, CA).

2.  Mentioning an interest in a particular major that the school actually doesn't offer.

3. Re-using an essay that doesn't fully answer the question for the second (or third) college. 

For example, Stanford asks you to describe a subject or idea that you find intellectually exciting and to explain why.  A lot of students might try to re-use that essay for Cornell's supplement that asks, "Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. Tell us how you will utilize the academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences to further explore your interests, intended major, or field of study." 

If you write the Stanford essay and then just tack on a sentence at the end of it for Cornell like, "That's why I'm excited to study history at Cornell," it looks like what it is–an essay that you wrote for another college and are trying to pass off.  Recycling an essay isn't necessarily always a bad thing; lots of colleges ask similar questions.  But you don't want your essay to have an "insert name of college here" feeling.

Creating a pocket of greatness

Some people believe they can’t make a difference in their organization unless they’re in charge.  They think that unless they’re the CEO of the company, or the superintendent of a school, or the president of their club, they’re not empowered to do those things that would really make their organization great.

Jim Collins is a professor at the Stanford Business School who’s written several books about the workings and leadership behind great companies.  His website has several articles and MP3s in which he discusses his work.  Here are two pieces I found addressing the question of whether or not you really need to be in charge to create greatness.

“For many people, the first question that occurs is, ‘But how do I persuade my CEO to get it?’ My answer: Don’t worry about that… each of us can create a pocket of greatness. Each of us can take our own area of work and influence and can concentrate on moving it from good to great. It doesn’t really matter whether all the CEOs get it. It only matters that you and I do. Now, it’s time to get to work.”

“Take responsibility to make great what you can make great.  And let others do it in the areas that they can make.  And if the whole company doesn’t do it, you can’t change that. But you can take responsibility for your area.”

What to do if a college tells you your file is incomplete

Imagine receiving a notice in the mail that your application to a particular college is incomplete due to a missing item like test scores or a letter of recommendation.  Suddenly, this whole application process doesn't look quite as finished as you thought it was. 

But if this happens, don't panic.   Admissions offices receive thousands of pieces of mail during application season and each one needs to be individually sorted and filed.  The occasional missing item is a normal part of the process even for kids who did everything right.  That's why colleges build in time to alert those students to re-send the missing information.  

If you get that kind of notice, no need to panic.  You didn't necessarily do anything wrong.  Just (re)send the requested information as soon as possible.