Do them anyway

Students and their parents often lament the qualities, talents, and contributions that colleges won’t see during the application process. If only the college could see how nice you are to your younger siblings, the way people respond to you at the counter of your part-time job, the relationships you build or focus you maintain or genuine passion you carry for your hobby or interest—if only the college would look at those things, they’d see how much more I am than just a collection of grades and test scores.

Still, do those things anyway. Do them to the very best of your ability. It’s who you are, and you don’t need a college to tell you that they’re valuable.

Just because you don’t think a college will be able to appreciate the way you bring your special qualities to the world doesn’t make those qualities any less special. There’s plenty of comparison built into this process around how this grade or test score or award will stack up against the competition and be evaluated by your chosen colleges. No need to sully the pure parts of life with attempts to attach them to college applications.

There may not be a space to write “I’m my siblings’ favorite babysitter” on a college application, but the traits that make you good at one thing inevitably make you a better human. And better humans make more of an impact wherever they spend their time, and that includes activities that do—and those that do not—belong on a college application.

And besides, what’s the alternative? To stop being who you are just because colleges won’t evaluate it? That is never a good strategy, college admissions or otherwise.

If you have special talents, skills, or traits that you don’t believe can be measured on a college application, do them anyway. As long as you and others benefit in some way, the college admissions part will eventually take care of itself.

What are your ideas worth?

If you’re in a club, organization, or company, you’ve probably come across people who have lots of ideas. They’ve always got a suggestion about what the group should change, initiate, or roll out. And they often express those ideas with some version of, “We should…”

“We should do a different fundraiser this year—nobody likes selling candy bars.”

“We should recruit more people to join us. We’d get a lot more done.”

“We should do better training for our managers.”

Good ideas are valuable. If you’ve got them, you should share them, as an idea’s validity within an organization is often determined in part by how many others are willing to get behind it.

But please don’t mistake proposing the idea for a valuable contribution. The idea is the easier part. What’s harder and much more valuable is everything that happens next.

What are you willing to do to test that idea? What initiative will you show? What responsibility will you assume? What risk will you take with your time or energy or reputation?

An idea is only worth something if it creates a change. And for that to happen almost always requires someone championing it, someone who’s willing to assume responsibility for enrolling interested parties, pushing through the difficulties and the compromises, and successfully shipping an often not necessarily perfect but certainly good enough version.

An idea that never comes to life fades away. But one that comes to fruition can be evaluated, tweaked, and learned from.

So the next time you’re about to say, “We should____,” consider following it with, “And I’m willing to____ to make it happen.”

The more you’re willing to offer in the second piece, the more likely people will get excited about the first.

Distraction out, focus in

Imagine you’re struggling in a class, so you ask your teacher if you can get some extra help at lunch. Your teacher agrees, but when you arrive, ready to explain where you’re struggling, they say, “I’m just going to grade these papers. But keep talking.”

You sit down with your college interviewer who says, “Tell me a little bit about yourself while I review this proposal I have to submit at work later today.”

You’ve been struggling with a decision in your personal life and ask a friend for some advice. But while you’re explaining the situation, your friend is busy trying to create the perfect playlist, with each potential song requiring a 10-second sampling to test it as an appropriate choice.

Would you be annoyed? Would you feel like you were in fact not the focus of their attention? Would you be tempted to ask to reschedule to a time when they weren’t so distracted?

Now replace each of their distractions with “scrolling through their phone.” Does it feel any different? Probably not.

If you’re trying to have a meaningful interaction with someone—not necessarily one in which you need something, just one where conversation is intended to take place—put the phone away and silence it. Send a signal that tells the other person that right here, right now, this interaction is your priority.

When you replace your distractions with focus, you’re more likely to get a similar gesture in return.

You see what you look for

Families tend to see what they look for as they move their way through a student’s college preparation process.

If you look for perceived advantages others received that somehow hurt you, you’ll find them.

If you look for experiences that left you smarter, more mature, or otherwise better prepared for college, you’ll find them.

If you look for students who were shut out of their dream colleges in spite of their high achievements, you’ll find them.

If you look for a reason to believe that you’ve got a good shot at admission to a highly selective college regardless of what your counselor says, you’ll find it.

Depending on where you attend high school (and access to information today means you can find countless examples even beyond your own school’s walls), there are likely enough students preparing for, applying to, and receiving decisions from colleges that you can find an example to support whatever it is that you decide to look for. But that still doesn’t mean that you’re seeing reality.

If a family decides they don’t want to hear that Stanford is an unrealistic college option, they’ll eventually find a narrative that supports the outcome they want to believe. But that doesn’t necessarily change the admissions reality.

The good news is that we all get to choose what we look for. And if families look for evidence that healthy, balanced, happy kids not only emerge relatively unscathed from the college admissions process, but also end up at colleges where they thrive—even if the schools were not among their top choices—you’ll find those, too. In fact, you’ll find lots of them. That’s admissions reality.

How do you know if you’re looking for the right things? Evaluate the behaviors inspired by what you’re looking for.

Does your visible pattern of experiences that helped you learn and grow leave you feeling more likely to embrace challenges, and more confident about your college future?

Does your evidence that others are benefiting in ways that you do not result in you complaining and feeling less inspired to do those things that actually make you happy?

Does your belief that a dream school really is a realistic possibility prevent you from finding other less selective schools that interest you?

If you choose healthy and beneficial behaviors first, it will be easier to find the right stories to support them.

Giving kids agency

It’s a difficult balancing act for parents to help their kids develop the skills to be successful while simultaneously letting go enough to allow them to develop the agency to become capable young adults. If you’re a parent struggling with this challenge, give this 40-minute interview with author and former Stanford dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims a listen. And if you’re unsure whether you’d benefit from the advice, the first minute alone might turn you around.

You know the list

At my first job out of college, a colleague gave me an invaluable tip. Our boss ended each day by writing a list of things he wanted to check in with us about the following day to make sure we were on track with our work. He’d leave that list on his desk as he departed the office. If you were willing to stay an hour or two later, you could check the list, note anything you’d forgotten to do, and take care of it before he came back the next day.

Two things happened as a result of this sneaky but effective habit.

  1. He started to assume that we didn’t need to be micromanaged.
  2. We got better at anticipating the very things he shouldn’t have had to ask us about in the first place.

Students, you probably know your parent a lot better than I knew my boss. My guess is that you can already anticipate what items are on their list to ask you about. The more often you do them without your parent having to ask, the less likely they’ll keep asking in the future.

Just one more thing

My four-year-old has discovered the stall tactic–some version of which many kids embrace growing up—“Just one more thing.” Whatever undesirable task we lay in front of him, from putting on shoes, to heading to bed, to cleaning his room, there’s always “just one more thing” he instantly has decided must be accomplished before addressing the task at hand.

The thing is, we don’t exactly let go of that stall tactic as we get older.

Lots of homework to do? “I’d better respond to my texts now so they won’t pile up while I’m working.”

Need to make an uncomfortable phone call? “I’ll just check my email first.”

Intimidating project to start? “Well, I can’t start the project until I clean my desk/take out the trash/reorganize my files.”

“Just one more thing” might be the world’s greatest all-age-appropriate stall tactic. But it’s still just stalling.

Imagine the one more thing is done. What will you do next? Start there. Chances are that whatever the “just one more thing” was won’t be quite so important when what was meant to come next is already done.

If you have a micromanaging parent

I write often here about the risks and effects of overparenting. When a parent assumes a role that’s part manager, part agent, and part personal assistant on behalf of their kid, the student loses all opportunities to learn by doing and to assume agency for their own life and education. Naturally, most of those posts are pitched with the parental reader in mind, as it’s their behavior I’m trying to prevent or change.

But what if you’re a student who’s being overparented? What can you do to help your parent see the error of their ways, and even to change their behavior?

Before I share my resource, below, I’d like to remind students of two things.

First, as difficult as it might be, try to assume good intent.

If you write off your parent’s behavior to bad character (“My mom is SO controlling!”), or selfish intentions (“My dad doesn’t want me to have my own life!”), you’re assuming a posture that will put even the most well-meaning parent on the defensive. Parenting is one of life’s most difficult (most rewarding, yes, but still difficult) jobs, and there is no instructional manual issued on day #1. I don’t expect most teens to sympathize with that, and it’s not your job to do so. But just trust me when I tell you that you’ll understand if you become a parent one day. Every single parent I have ever met, myself included, has made mistakes. We have weaknesses, insecurities, and other faults that make us human, not unqualified for the job. With rare exception, almost every case of overparenting I’ve seen comes from a good place–a parent who loves their child and wants to see them live a good life. Yes, those intentions can lead some parents wildly astray in their ensuing behavior. But assuming good intent puts you on the same side of the table as the parent you’re trying to change.

And second, please look closely at your own behaviors before asking your parent to change theirs.

The relevancy of that advice varies a lot depending on the student. Some teens proved they could be trusted to manage their own lives around the time they confidently marched ten feet ahead of their parents into the kindergarten classroom. But others have taken a more traditional route through the teenage years, one sprinkled with questionable decisions and occasional bad outcomes. No, those missteps are not proof that you’re immature and unable to direct your college journey. But you can’t expect a parent to ignore them if you won’t even acknowledge them. Digging your heels in and saying, “Why are you making such a big deal about that?!” doesn’t make it go away nearly as quickly as does, “I shouldn’t have done that, and it won’t happen again.”

Claire Lew puts out regular content to help managers do a better job leading their teams. And I was struck by how relevant her recent piece, “How to deal with a micromanaging boss,” might be for teens who are having a similar experience with their own parent. It was almost as if you could replace every use of “boss” with “parent” and transform the article from one written for workers to one written for teens.

Bad behavior–from both parents and teens–often comes from good people with good intentions. If we can identify the good, we’re much closer to changing the bad.

Regularly ask “why?”

In response to my post last week with data demonstrating why teens need to get more sleep, a parent replied with an earnest and totally reasonable question: How? As she pointed out, getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep is a challenge with school, classes, activities, part-time jobs, etc. For a concerned parent who agrees that too many students are taking on too much, and who would very much like to encourage their kids to get more sleep, what exactly can be done about it?

There’s no easy answer here, but I recommend that families start start by asking “why?” when confronted with those choices that are preventing kids from getting more sleep.

Four AP classes—why? Activities filling up all their free time–why? And if the answers are, “Because kids need to get into ‘good’ colleges,” stick with, “Why?” There are hundreds of colleges in this country that will happily admit a kid with B’s, no AP classes, average test scores, and a part-time job after school as their only activity.

These are choices that kids and families make. And one of those choices is to opt in to—or out of—the race for a coveted spot at one of those colleges that denies most of their applicants.

We might say that this is the way it has to be, that kids need to get accepted to the most selective college they can lest they somehow be left behind their more competitive (and sleep-deprived) classmates. But if you meet that assumption with a powerful “why?” you’ll see that it doesn’t hold up. There’s no data to support that kids who go to highly selective colleges are happier or more successful in life. The namebranditus afflicting so many families is a powerful story they’ve been told and now tell themselves. But it’s not a fact-based objective on which you can predicate your high school career.

The truth is that some kids thrive on competition and achievement. They’re internally wired to finish at the top and feel a sense of exhilaration in the chase. But many more do not. I don’t prescribe one way to approach high school. But whatever approach you see—and even endorse—with your student, take the time to regularly ask, “Why?”

A guide to basic financial aid terms

It’s helpful for students just starting their college search to understand how financial aid works. Without that knowledge, you risk making faulty assumptions about which schools you can and cannot afford, how much aid will be available, and when to apply for it. I always appreciate when a knowledgeable source makes a complex idea easier to understand, and that’s what Sean Ashbury, admissions officer at Tufts, has done with his blog post, “An Admissions Officer’s Guide to Financial Aid.” Just grasping the ten terms he defines so clearly will make you a savvier college shopper.