Five application management tips for parents

I spend a lot of time here reminding parents that your most important college-admissions-related job is to be the parent of your applicant. Love your student unconditionally. Remember that it’s all about them, not you. Cheer them on and don’t act like a lunatic on their behalf. During this stressful time, your kids need a parent who takes this job seriously.

But at some level, many parents are in fact managers of the college admissions process.

I hesitate to use the term “managers” because it can conjure up expectations that you’ll run the show—making every decision, tracking all the progress, and even hijacking the entire project from the student who needs to be driving it.

But it’s natural for a good parent to feel some sense of responsibility for their kid’s success. The cost of total college admissions failure, like missing all the deadlines or ending up with no colleges to attend, would be a lot to bear for both the student and parent. And much as great managers at work find ways to help their employees drive their own success without the manager being in the middle of it all the time, parents can strive to do the same thing with their college applicant in the house.

So here are a few management principles that can be applied productively for parents of college applicants.

1. Remind them of their strengths.
A great manager notices the unique strengths of each employee and then makes sure the employee both recognizes and deploys them well. Nobody knows your kids better than you do. But many people, not just teens, aren’t yet aware of those areas where they are at their best. So point them out. Have they always set high goals for themselves? Do they always seem to treat people well? Are they fearless about initiating new things, or able to meet new people easily, or so responsible that people look to them when the chips are down? This is the perfect time to not only point those strengths out, but also remind them that it’s these strengths that will make them successful at whatever college is lucky enough to get them.

2. Agree on expectations.
Does your teen know what you expect of them during this time? High expectations paired with unconditional love strike a good balance with kids. Do they know which parts of the process they’ll retain full responsibility for, and where they can expect help? Do they know how you define success? Have a conversation early about those expectations. And ask them about their own. How would they like this to go? What does success look like? What do they want to own and where do they feel they might need help? And as you have these conversations, please remember to keep the expectations focused on outcomes your teen can control. Progress, meeting deadlines, and communication with you are under their control. Admissions decisions are not.

3. Ask them, “How often would you like me to check in with you about your progress?”
This one is important. A great manager knows that some people need a lot more direction, feedback, and opportunities to ask questions than others do. So they start by asking, “How often would you like me to check in with you about your progress?” Notice that the manager presumes those check-ins will happen, but they give the employee the choice about how often. If your teen responds, “Please just let me handle it,” consider agreeing with that proposal conditionally. Ask them to check in with you at well-defined intervals that you agree on. The goal of these interactions should be to make your student feel supported, not directed.

4. Recognize and praise great work.
Nobody likes working for a boss who only chimes in to tell an employee what they’ve done wrong. And everyone likes to feel recognized for praise-worthy work along the way. Frequent praise done well not only motivates people, it also helps them bring out even more of what’s already working. Here’s a past post with some advice on how to praise effectively.

5. Confront poor performance early, but not punitively.
If an employee struggles to meet the expectations, a great manager intervenes early, and does so from a place of concern. They don’t necessarily do so at the very first wisp of difficulty, but they don’t let a struggling employee languish, either. So if you see your teen struggling, or creeping too close to deadlines, or outright ignoring the work you agreed together they would do, have a direct but nurturing conversation. Tell them you’re worried, express your desire to help, but remain vigilant in your commitment to let them retain ownership of their process.

Also, Patrick O’Connor just reposted his wonderful recommendations on this topic. I believe they work nicely alongside mine, though Patrick’s also involve pizza, which is certainly a bonus.

When to ignore bad reviews

Some of the best-selling books of all time have hundreds of one-star reviews on Amazon. From classics like Don Quixote and A Tale of Two Cities to contemporary works like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, they’ve sold copies into the hundreds of millions. But they’ve also got their fair share of one-star reviewers who just didn’t enjoy the work at all.

The lesson: if you show your writing to enough people, someone will tell you they don’t like it. It’s true for Miguel de Cervantes, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, and Dan Brown. And it’s true for students writing college essays.

If you show your college essay to an English teacher, a counselor, or someone with experience working in a college admissions office, I’d take any constructive criticism seriously. Even best-selling authors take feedback from experienced editors who know how to improve even already good writing and storytelling.

But if you insist on shopping your essay around to as many people as you can in the hopes that just a little more feedback from a few more readers will help you improve it, at some point one of those readers will give you a bad review. One bad review is easy to shake off if you’re an author who’s sold 200 million books. But it’s not so easy when you’re a teenager who’s applying to college.

Students, if you want to show your essay to your parents, friends, neighbors, etc., please do. It’s your essay, after all. But be clear what you’re asking for.

It’s one thing to ask, “Would you read my college essay and tell me what you think?” It’s another thing entirely to ask, “I finished my college essay and I’m really happy with it. Would you like to read it?”

Listen to the constructive criticism when you’ve asked the right question of the right people. But for everyone else, you’re best off ignoring bad reviews.

Perceived risk

I’m not sure I could ever summon the bravery to run into a burning building to save a stranger. That’s why I could never be a firefighter. As much as that news would have devastated me at age four, I’m comfortable with it today. That kind of courage is wiring I don’t have.

But I’ve noticed that confidence doesn’t seem to work that way.

Confidence can be built up over time. Giving a presentation, counseling a student, even taking a standardized test–you can become more confident simply by exposing yourself to the situation often enough that it loses its fear factor.

But confidence can also be summoned by acting as if you already have it. If you repeatedly make the choice to behave like a confident person, eventually, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m not suggesting that any of us can or should become different people. We’re not supposed to walk through the world unfazed by anything at all.

But if you’re holding yourself back from doing something because you’re just not confident enough, what would it look like if you acted as if you were? Chances are, you’ll be scared in the moment. But you’ll emerge unscathed in the worst case and exhilarated in the best case. Do that over and over again, and eventually it will become part of your makeup. What once felt risky will become second nature.

Confidence won’t make running into a burning building less dangerous. But it can do wonders for mitigating perceived risk.

Why teens need play time, too

If you’re a parent for whom the phrase “play time” has a frivolous connotation when applied to your teen, this ten-minute interview with Denise Pope of Challenge Success and Sandra Russ, clinical child psychologist and professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University, might change your mind.

They’re not advocating that kids sacrifice their ambition and work ethic so they can goof off with their friends. But Pope and Russ do remind us that play time is linked to creativity, stress release, and interpersonal skills, all of which are crucial factors to success before, during, and after college.

The first minute

The last minute does something pretty extraordinary for people. It forces us to act.

The deadline is here. The paper is due. Auditions are today. Just one spot left. When time runs out, tomorrow isn’t an option. Today is all that’s left.

But while the last minute is great for getting us going, it usually hurts the work. And it always causes stress.

What if we reversed it and behaved that way at the beginning? Instead of waiting to act until there is no other option, we can choose to act when there are hundreds of options. Hurry at the beginning and then polish at the end.

Quality goes up and stress goes down when you start in the first minute.

The metric to maximize

It’s hard to think of a better metric to drive us than “How many people trust me?”

Not people who like your social media post—that’s not real trust. How many people know they can count on you to tell the truth and keep your promises? How many people would pick you first to join their project? How many will listen when you speak, or open your newsletter, or read your blog because you’ve already shown them over and over again what you give when they show up?

I’d trade social media likes for real trust every time.

Students, parents, counselors, and everyone else, what are you doing today to earn that trust? If you’re measuring the output of your work, trust is a great metric to maximize.

Your opportunity is waiting

Any student who applies to a highly selective college is exhibiting laudable bravery. The only way for a college to become that selective is to deny just about everyone who applies, including students with off-the-charts scores and accomplishments. You’ll see unforgiving math at work when the highest achievers from all over the world apply to the same 40 or so colleges, none of which have nearly enough spots to go around. It takes a certain fortitude to put yourself out there when the odds of “no” are so much higher than they are for “yes.” But tens of thousands of students summon that resolve every year.

That bravery can also be channeled into a thousand other things that are guaranteed to pay off.

Raising your hand in class. Calling a director of a non-profit to inquire about volunteering. Launching a club or a fundraiser or initiative. Trying something new that might not work. Abandoning something old that stopped working long ago. Accepting responsibility, deflecting credit, asking the tough question—all of these things come with perceived risk. What if the director turns you away? What if your big idea doesn’t work? What if you feel foolish? These are all potential outcomes that come with doing important work.

But that’s why this kind of bravery is guaranteed to pay off—you’ll learn from it.

You’ll be smarter, more informed, and more resilient. You’ll train yourself to be the kind of person who doesn’t sit back and wait to be told what to do, who instead leans in and pushes forward and leads other people to a place you all want to go. These are learned skills. Every time you put yourself in a position to practice them, you get better no matter the outcome.

It’s these skills that lead to almost any definition of success (including gaining admission to a highly selective college). But they are available to anyone. A “C” student has the same opportunity to wield it as an “A” student does.

Your opportunity to be brave is always there waiting.

How many stars do you deserve?

Gabe the Bass Player shares an interesting idea on his blog. What would happen if every music concert came with a rating of 1-10 stars people could see before they bought tickets? And here’s the catch. What if the musicians chose their own rating?

If you’re a musician, now you’d have a choice to make. Out of ten stars, how good is your show? How many stars do you deserve?

Sure, you could rate yourself a 10, even if your show doesn’t deserve it, just to sell more tickets. But then you’d look like both a fraud for duping your audience and a fool for thinking your 3 could pass for a 10. Or you could do a difficult, honest assessment of how many stars you really deserve and then tell your potential audience the truth.

That rating would say a lot not just about a musician’s desire to sell tickets, but also how they judge music and how they hope to relate to their fans.

Now, here’s the exciting opportunity. Any musician who’s willing to give themselves an honest rating can then ask the even more important question: What do I need to do differently to earn more stars?

As a student, a parent, a sibling, a coworker, a counselor, etc.–how many stars would you give yourself? And what do you need to do to increase your rating?

Enjoy the habit

Does the person who rises several times a week at 5 a.m. to run for an hour, even if it’s raining or snowing, actually enjoy doing it?

Maybe some particularly good runners do (I’ve run thousands of miles in my life and I’ve personally never experienced the mythical runner’s high). But I think what they’re really enjoying is the habit.

Most of those runners would admit that, sure, it would feel a lot better to stay in that cozy bed than it does to stumble out of it, don their running gear, and head out the door into the cold early morning. But they’ve made it a habit. And the habit is where the enjoyment lies.

They enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. They enjoy the freedom throughout the day of knowing that they’ve already gotten their workout in. They enjoy the pride that comes with knowing they made a healthy choice, once again, and resisted the lure of the snooze button.

There are a lot of things they enjoy more than the run itself. But they’ve trained themselves to enjoy the habit.

Most healthy, positive, productive habits start as choices. We can make the choice to care more about understanding someone else’s point of view than we do about proving that we’re right. We can make the choice to be the kind of person who shows up early and can always be counted on to come through. We can make the choice to do a little more than was asked of us, or to be generous, kind, thoughtful, forgiving, etc.

Students, you may be spending a significant portion of your high school days doing things that aren’t your choice. But if you don’t enjoy them, maybe you could decide how you’d behave differently if you did enjoy them. And then make the choice to behave differently. Do it over and over again and it’s likely to become a (good) habit.

You may not enjoy everything you’re doing. But you just might enjoy the feeling that comes with making a good habit out of it.

Which kind of hustle?

I started Collegewise by myself in 1999 and went from zero to over 100 students in less than 18 months. When asked, I’ve often said that I was simply willing to hustle more than my local competition was. They had businesses. They had years and years of experience. They had the history and the reputation in the community that comes with it. They didn’t need to hustle. But I was starting from scratch. Hustle was all I had.

But there are two kinds of hustle, and it’s important to choose carefully.

The first kind is for people who believe that the end justifies the means. In independent college counseling, these hustlers spam potential customers, over and over again. They press their current clients for referrals. They’ll inject fear into their marketing messaging, disparage high school counselors, and generally do just about anything to benefit their business in the short term, even if it shrinks their trust and credibility in the long term.

But the other kind of hustle plays the long game. This is the independent counselor who’s always looking for ways to delight their current customers, not just to entice new ones. They’ll create a helpful resource and give it away for free to as many people as possible. They care more about pleasing the organizer and the audience at a presentation than they do about wedging their sales pitch at every turn. They follow industry news and attend conferences because it makes them more informed and aware.

Their version of hustling is doing those seemingly little things that might have little or no impact today, but collectively make an enormous impact tomorrow. That’s what makes the little things so hard to do, and why it takes hustle to do them.

Students, parents, counselors, and everyone else have the opportunity to inject a little hustle into their important work. It’s an advantage available to everyone. But you can’t just make the choice to hustle. You’ve also got to choose which kind.