Avoid the crowds

The secret to having a great visit at Disneyland is to go on a day when it’s not crowded. Show up when it’s packed and you’ll spend more time waiting in line than doing anything else. But arrive on a day when Mickey and friends are serving a fraction of their total capacity and you’ll get more rides per hour, more bang for your buck, and more fun per single visit. You’ll still need to make the effort and the rounds—the fun isn’t just going to come to you. But when there’s nothing stopping you from zooming through Space Mountain one more time, why not take the ride? The small crowd makes that possible.

Some of the most appealing pursuits in high school are crowded (which in many cases is exactly what makes them appealing in the first place). The club everyone seems to join. The class everyone wants to take. The college everyone else wants to attend. The crowds make it harder to avail yourself of what they have to offer. You either can’t get in at all or you manage to get in only to compete with a large crowd for all the opportunities. If you’ve identified something you really want to do, don’t avoid it just because of crowds or competition. But if an alternative could suffice, maybe it should?

Why not join a club that’s just begging for someone to lead and make an impact?

Why not learn that class’s material a different way, like through an online course, a community college, or a self-directed study?

Why not find some colleges that may not be as famous but still present the same offerings and opportunities that drew you to the crowded one? (There are plenty of them—trust me.)

The more opportunity you have to initiate, to lead, to solve problems, to make an impact, to make a difference, and to enact positive change, the more you’ll get out of whatever you’re choosing to do. And those opportunities are often a lot more readily available when you avoid the crowds.

Special specifics

For seniors still debating which college’s offer of admission to accept, here’s something that might make it easier. Four years from now, when you’re approaching your graduation and considering your college experience in retrospect, the most impactful, positive parts of the journey will likely be those that you could have never envisioned ahead of time.

Yes, you might already know that you’re drawn to football games, or small classes, or a particular geographic region. But you haven’t yet created the specifics around those experiences. You haven’t formed those specific Game Day memories with your college friends. You haven’t participated in that small class with the professor who will introduce you to a new intellectual interest you won’t want to put back down after the final exam. You haven’t taken advantage of all the big city or the open country or the place that’s nothing like home will have to offer. Those specifics are where the impact and the memories will be made.

Even with the experiences you can’t begin to imagine today, it will be the specifics that make them special. The major you found by accident after enrolling in a class on a recommendation from your advisor. The new friend who later stood at your wedding. The impromptu road trip you took with your roommate and still recall fondly years later. Some experiences can be forecasted with generality ahead of time. Others will be pleasant surprises. But what makes them special will be the specifics. And those specifics haven’t presented themselves yet.

Like most big life decisions, choosing a college is always a leap of faith. The size of the leap can vary from student to student, but the truth is that while you should be thoughtful and deliberate when making the decision where to attend college, you can’t possibly know all the forthcoming details (good or bad) that will add up to create what the experience will ultimately be. You do your research, talk to your family and to other people you trust, and listen to your gut—then it’s time to leap.

The beauty of the forthcoming specifics is that while you can’t see them ahead of time, you have enormous influence over the quality and quantity that present themselves in college. You find those experiences by searching for them, by committing to subjects and activities that matter to you, by eagerly exposing yourself to new ideas and people and interests. As busy as you may have been in high school, much of your life in and out of the classroom was decided for you, with required classes, fixed schedules, and often limited influence over your time or task. That’s all going to change when you get to college. “What did you do today?” is a high school question. “What did you decide to do today?” is the college version.

So if you’re feeling uncertain, if all the thinking and comparing and talking doesn’t seem to have brought you closer to an obvious selection, don’t worry. Yes, you’ll need to make that choice by May 1. But as long as you’re not being rash, you’ll have the opportunity to chase and to discover those special specifics at whichever college you choose.

Hunting season?

Author and researcher Marcus Buckingham has spent his career studying success in the workplace. In his recent post and accompanying video, Buckingham shares what he believes is the best career advice he has ever heard. The entire post and video are worth a look, but here’s my favorite snippet:

“When it comes to work, there is no preset route. The most successful people are always searching for new opportunities to use their strengths. They’re able to pivot paths, and if it’s not right, they scavenge back. Don’t worry about moving a little off course; in fact, a lot of successful peoples’ routes are scattered because their scavenger hunt has led them to a few different places, and they’ve course-corrected until they’ve found the best opportunities to fit their strengths.”

Worth considering for students preparing to head to college this fall. Rather than viewing college as one step in a preset route to a career, consider turning that time into a four-year hunting season in which you search for opportunities to learn, grow, and discover your talents.

The real person

I’m so lucky that just about all the feedback I get about my blog posts is at best positive and at worst constructive. But every now and then, I’ll get a reply that makes it clear my posts and this particular reader are just not a good match. I usually send a short reply expressing that I appreciate them reading, that I’m sorry the message didn’t resonate, and that my blog probably isn’t for them.

And more than once, I’ve had one of those readers respond back with something to the effect of, “I wasn’t expecting to hear from a real person!” I always smile at that sentiment. Who (or what) exactly did they think was writing these blogs? Of course it’s a real person. My name and photo are right there on the front page.

Even in the increasing age of technology, and as difficult as some companies may make it to find one, plenty of communication still involves a human being. Someone is at the other end of that email, that phone call, that outreach of any kind. And it helps to remember that this someone is, in fact, a real person.

Whether you’re a college sending out admissions decisions, a student contacting an admissions office, or a parent reaching out to a teacher (which we should encourage our kids to do on their own), don’t just fire off your request or complaint. Remember that there’s a real person on the other side. Treating them that way makes it more likely you’ll beget the same treatment in return.

Pressure off, focus on

Patrick O’Connor always seems to show up for counselors and students with just the right message at just the right time. And his latest post for counselors, “Talking to Anxious Juniors About College,” is no exception. If you feel juniors ratcheting up the panic around their impending process, his recommended messaging will take some pressure off (but keep their well-intentioned college planning focus on).

Make it easier

Last week, I needed to cancel our Collegewise account with DocuSign, as we’ve recently found a new tool that replaces it. And as I logged into my account, I braced myself. I was expecting the same routine I’ve found with multiple other services.

You want to upgrade and pay us more? Great! We’ll make it easy—just click here!

But oh, you want to cancel? Ooff. Geez. We can’t let you just click a button. You’ll have to call us. And once you’re here, we’ll send you through a recorded option purgatory before you finally reach a real human being who will inevitably make you defend your choice to leave us. In the meantime, please hold. Your call is very important to us.

But DocuSign made it easier. One click was all it took. It was so damn refreshing, it actually made me even more likely to recommend their product.

There are a few lessons here for schools, counselors, and students.

Schools and counselors, if you’re serving students (and in many cases, their parents), are you making it easier for them to get the information they need, to take the actions they need to take, to do the things they need to do to benefit most from what you offer? I’m not suggesting you need to be available to them 24/7, but here’s a good litmus test. Imagine someone you love—your child, your partner, your grandmother—experiencing what these customers are experiencing. Would you feel good about how they’re being treated? Or would you think they deserved better? If it’s the latter, remember that your customers are somebody’s child, partner, grandmother, etc. And they probably deserve better.

And for students who are sifting through various college acceptances, here’s an ask—when you make your final decision, please honor the other colleges’ requests to tell them that you won’t be attending. Regardless of your level of affection for those colleges, remember that other students just like you plan on—or desperately hope to be—attending. Those students are customers whose lives will be made better if the colleges can make it easier. The sooner students like you inform schools of your plans to go elsewhere, the sooner those colleges can commit to housing their incoming students, and the sooner they can reach out to those applicants on waitlists to offer them a space. You’ll be helping colleges and your fellow students, and you’ll be putting yourself in line for well-deserved karma points for making everyone’s job just a little easier.

Beating the reality drum

Good college counselors, and I on this blog, routinely beat the drum that all the headlines about the absurd selectivity of American colleges are only news because they are anomalies. We remind families that highly selective colleges make up only a tiny portion of available schools, that happy and successful adults hail from hundreds of less selective colleges, and that the vast majority of schools accept many more applicants than do the highly selective ones. Good news doesn’t always make for good headlines. But in this case, the good news is where the reality is.

If you’re still not convinced and would like to see some data around this argument, here’s a recent Atlantic article, “College-Admissions Hysteria Is Not the Norm.” This may not turn out to be my most viral post this year, but it’s worth it to keep beating the reality drum.

Stuck on a past story?

College admissions decision month presents a separate but related choice many seniors will need to make, especially those who were disappointed with the outcomes: Live with the past story or write a new one.

You’d envisioned yourself attending Duke, Pomona or another college you thought was perfect for as long as you can remember. You worked hard. You put forth the effort in classes and activities and your application. And still, the answer you received was not what you’d hoped for.

You now have a choice. Stay stuck in a past story, the one that saw you thriving at your dream college. Relive that disappointment every day, rehashing the disconnect between the college future you envisioned and the one that’s presented itself.

Or you could embrace a new story. You could find pride and reassurance in the work you’ve done. You could envision all the new learning and friends and adventures that will be waiting for you at a college that said yes. You could invest your focus and energy into planning to extract the maximum value from the experience that’s awaiting. You could write a new story based on the reality that’s been presented.

I’m not suggesting that you aren’t allowed to feel disappointment. You’re a human being, not a robot, after all. But at some point, experiencing that disappointment edges into unnecessarily reliving disappointment that would otherwise dissipate. Once that happens, your narrative is leaving you stuck in the past, and it’s time for a new story.

This won’t be the last time life throws something at you that’s different from what you envisioned. It’s part of growing up, something we all contend with at different times. Consider this a practice run, albeit a painful one, for those future events. And remember that you’ll almost always feel better, and plot a more productive path forward, when you act based on the real present instead of staying stuck on a past story.

Bragging backfires

Angela Duckworth is a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and the CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to character development. Her latest newsletter reminds parents that publicly bragging about your children’s college acceptances, test scores, and other achievements can actually have detrimental effects on your kids.

Does everyone in the universe really need to know where your kid is headed for college this fall? Even if your child is marching through the front door of a highly selective university, there isn’t much to be gained by announcing this news publicly. In fact, there’s a lot to be lost. I say this as a daughter who remembers cringing, literally, when my dad—upon meeting old friends, new acquaintances, or just innocent bystanders at the local hardware store—would somehow work into the conversation an update on one or another of his children’s accomplishments.

Expressing your pride to your kids makes it about them. But openly bragging about your kids makes it about you.