When time to grow is time to go

Patrick O’Connor wrote this post for counselors who are advising underclassmen on their high school plans for next year. But I think parents and kids would be well-served to know how one of the best high school counselors in the business advises colleagues to answer a student who asks a question like the one below in bold.

Do I have to keep up the trombone? This is also the time when students start to evaluate their electives and their extracurricular activities. The cool activity they just couldn’t live without in middle school has lost its shine, but they’ve heard colleges really like to see commitment to some core extracurriculars. They turn to you to know if they have to be miserable for the next two years, or if they get their life back. No pressure here.

In many ways, this is the same situation as giving up French. Colleges do like to see students commit to a few core activities and grow in them (by becoming part of an award-winning robotics team, or getting a promotion at work), but it’s unlikely a student will rise to new levels of leadership if their heart just isn’t into it. Junior year is no time to join seven new clubs—the colleges will see right through that—but if it’s time to grow, it’s time to go.”

How to work smarter, not harder

I enjoy Eric Barker’s blog, which shares “science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life.” And his most recent piece, “This Is How To ‘Work Smarter Not Harder’: 3 Secrets From Research,” hits on three themes that can benefit any college-bound student.

1. Do less. You can’t be great at any one thing when you’re constantly multi-tasking 1000 things.
2. Make a conscious effort to improve within those areas of focus. Don’t just expect it to happen because you show up.
3. Find the joy and passion in the work (which has as much to do with how you view it as it does the work itself).

Let’s talk about summer plans

One of the many ways college admissions has changed since most parents went to college is the focus on—and related pressure around—summer plans. Many students attend special programs (often with high price tags), take extra classes, volunteer, etc., often driven in part or in full by how those summer activities will strengthen their college applications. Are these efforts effective? Are they even necessary? Is there room for rest and relaxation, or has the term “summer vacation” become a relic of the parents’ past when a student could apply to 2-3 colleges with a reasonable expectation of getting in?

If you’ve got similar questions, I hope you’ll join us for an upcoming free webinar:

Here Comes the Sun: Planning Your Ideal Summer Schedule
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

Our presenters are Collegewise counselors Jazzmin Estebane and Kailey Hockridge. Jazzmin was a summer recruitment coordinator at Yale and later an assistant dean of admissions at Pomona College. And since earning a master’s at Columbia University, Kailey has spent the last five years counseling high school students through the college admissions process. I think you’ll leave the webinar not just better informed about your summer’s role in your journey to college, but also more comfortable making summer plans that you’re actually excited about.

All the details and the registration information are here. I hope you’ll join us.

On the value of internships

For students who may be considering pursuing an internship as a means of increasing experience, building a resume, or gaining a college admissions advantage, here are a few guidelines to help you make a good choice, and hopefully land a good opportunity.

1. Remember that your efforts to secure the internship are part of the learning.
Some of the most valuable internship learning takes place before you ever start the gig. How did you find the opportunity? What was the application and interview process like? How did you convince the organization you were worth taking an internship chance on? If you seek out, apply for, and secure an internship yourself, you’ll learn these lessons. If your parent or someone else does all the work and just tells you when and where to show up, you won’t. Don’t assume that fancy sounding internship you have handed to you is more impressive than a lesser known opportunity you found and secured yourself.

2. Get as close as you can to the product, service, or customer.
There is no shame in filing, sweeping floors, getting coffee, etc. But it’s even better if you can get an internship where your role is more central to what the organization does. One way to find those opportunities is to go where other interns don’t. Countless high school students try to get internships at hospitals or law firms. But how many search for opportunities at free clinics or legal aid centers that specifically work with disadvantaged populations? The tech giant in town probably won’t let you test the product before it ships. But the small upstart company down the road just might. A Collegewise student I worked with wanted to major in journalism, and rather than pursue an opportunity at the major newspaper everyone read, she went straight for her small town community paper where she went from fact-checking stories, to copy-editing, to penning her own weekly column in less than six months.

3. Consider creating your own internship.
An internship is usually a defined role an organization has planned for and made the decision to fill with an eager person. But just because an opportunity isn’t posted publicly doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t create one for the right candidate. Consider what you have to offer, find a place that might benefit, and pitch your services. Can you build websites? Fix computers? Translate Spanish and English? Proofread? Organize what’s disorganized? Research online? Make minor repairs? I promise you that there’s an organization nearby that would happily accept your services a few hours a week. Reach out, be specific about what you can do and how much time you’re willing to commit, and ask if they’ll give you a shot for two weeks to prove you can make a difference. Even if they say no, they’ll be impressed with your teenage gumption.

4. Use your opportunity as a springboard.
When you begin an internship, you’re an unproven commodity. Your job is to change that perception, and even better, to become someone the boss or team or organization just couldn’t live without. The best opportunities in the future come to those who make the most of their current opportunities. You may not intend on staying past your agreed upon tenure. But if you do the kind of work that invites more responsibility, more experience, and more trust, you’ll learn—and perhaps even earn—even more than you originally planned. Here’s a past post about how to thrive in a part-time job. I think it applies to just about any opportunity.

5. Do it for the right reasons.
There are a lot of good reasons to consider getting an internship. Here’s a bad one if it’s the only one—to put it on your college application. Yes, colleges will be impressed by real commitment, especially one that aligns with what I’ve advised above. But if you’re just doing it because you’ve heard that colleges look favorably on internships, and if you’d really rather be playing in a recreational softball league or working at an ice cream shop or taking self-defense classes, why turn away from what’s clearly a better fit for you? Internships aren’t more or less compelling to colleges than any other involvement that you care about, commit to, and make an impact on during your time there. If you get an internship that goes well, list it proudly on your application. But as you make decisions about how to spend your time, remember that just about every college would tell you that they don’t have a prescribed list of recommended activities. That leaves the door wide open for you to choose things you want to do, whether or not an internship makes that list.

Where can you be an assist leader?

Basketball player John Stockton isn’t just widely regarded as one of the best point guards in basketball history; he was also named to the NBA’s 50th anniversary “All-Time Team” recognizing the 50 greatest players to ever play the game. In his 19-year career, Stockton was a ten-time All Star and won gold medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. Since he left the game in 2003, the Utah Jazz have retired his number, Salt Lake City named a street after him, and he’s been inducted into the basketball hall of fame. Today, standing in front of the arena where he played his home games is a statue bearing his likeness. Few players have ever reached the heights that Stockton did during his time as a player. He’s one of the best who ever played.

But Stockton didn’t garner those accolades as a scorer. In fact, in terms of total number of points scored by a player in their career, Stockton barely makes the list of the top 50 (he comes in at #46). Where Stockton made his mark was in dishing out assists. For non-basketball fans, a player is credited with an assist when they pass the ball to a teammate in a way that leads to a score. Stockton made 15,806 such passes over his career, more than any other player and almost 4,000 more than his closest competition.

When it came to helping teammates score, nobody in the history of the game did it as well as Stockton.

Individual achievement is just one path to greatness. If you can’t be the best at what you do, maybe you can be the best at helping others be the best?

Everyone can be an assist leader in something.

P.S. Stockton also holds the NBA record for career steals by a considerable margin. But it’s a lot harder to draw an appropriate college admissions comparison to taking the ball away from an opponent.

Not so lonely at the top

Last Friday, I posted “How you score with people” to remind high school students that the relentless measurement and reward of individual achievement so embedded in the college admissions process isn’t necessarily reflective of what it takes to be successful in the real world. What prompted that post in the first place—and the larger message that I couldn’t fit neatly into that single post—is the growing body of evidence that the people who seem to have  long-term success are those who find a way to help the people around them succeed, too.

Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant lays out a convincing argument in Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Here are two past posts on the book, here and here, and a New York Times story featuring Grant’s work, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

I just finished a preview copy of Harvard psychology researcher Shawn Achor’s Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being. The book’s key message is that while competition and individual achievement leave you disconnected and short of your full potential, connecting with, relating to, and learning from other people leads to long-term success and happiness.

And naysayers who are reluctant to take their eyes off the individual prize might be interested in last weekend’s New York Times opinion piece about the “Shalene Flanagan Effect.” The first American woman to win the New York Marathon in over 40 years, Flanagan has also nurtured and encouraged the growing talent around her with remarkable results—every one of her 11 training partners has qualified for the Olympics.

The article finishes:

“She [Flanagan] is extraordinarily competitive, but not petty; team-oriented, but not deferential. Elevating other women is actually an act of self-interest: It’s not so lonely at the top if you bring others along…So, it was no coincidence that, with the support system she spent years building for herself, it was Flanagan who finally prevailed.”

If this activity were made illegal…

Students, make a mental list of your activities that includes everything you choose—but are not required—to do. Now pick one and imagine that a state law was just enacted making that activity illegal.

Would you be disappointed, or secretly relieved?

Repeat the process with each activity and remember that you don’t need a law to take one off the list. It’s your time and effort. You get to make the rules.

Job, career, or calling?

Amy Wrzesniewski is a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. Her ongoing research into how we can find more meaning in our work has led her to conclude that people view occupations in one of three ways: a job, a career, or a calling.

A job is something to endure just to get a salary.

A career is something that gives prestige or position within society.

A calling is work that you believe is part of your identity, something that gives you meaning in your life.

On the surface, those findings may not appear that surprising. You can probably name at least one person you know who fits into each category.

But where her research gets fascinating is that when asked whether they view their work as a job, a career, or a calling, the answers remain fairly consistent across every profession. Doctors, janitors, social workers, executive assistants, writers, construction workers, trash collectors, teachers—the percentage within each profession who view the work as a job, a career, or a calling is roughly the same. And the reason? Because we all can find meaning in the work that we do, no matter what kind of work it is.

That’s why a great restaurant server can transform the entire dining experience.

That’s why a doctor with a great bedside manner will likely have much better relationships with her patients.

That’s why a plumber who tells the truth and makes a recommendation for repairs in the best interest of the customer is a lot more likely to get referral business.

And that’s why one student can transform anything from a class, to a cross country team’s workout, to a club meeting, to an orchestra rehearsal.

The key to finding that meaning is not to ask, “How much can I get out of this for myself?” It’s to ask, “How can I improve this experience for everyone?”

Whether you’re attending a study group, a karate class, a drama rehearsal, or a part-time job at a frozen yogurt shop, what would it take for you to see that time as a calling? How could you bring more of your unique talents, energy, insights, and personality to make the experience better, not just for you, but for everyone?

Sure, there will always be roles, experiences, and jobs that we’re just not cut out to do. It’s hard to imagine any universe where I could call competitive high-jumping a calling given that I have absolutely no natural skills or interest in that area.

But while we don’t always get to choose what we’re doing, we do get to choose how we do it. And how you do it is what decides whether you’ll feel like you’re in a job, a career, or a calling.

Monday morning Q&A: Community service and college admissions

Nicole asks:

“How much weight do schools place on service trips? It seems as if they are reaching an over-saturation point, that I might call ‘excessive volunteering.’ Do colleges see through most of these ‘checkbox’ items on a resume or application?”

Good question, Nicole. This is a tricky subject because a strong argument can be made that volunteering anywhere for any amount of time is a good thing regardless of any purported college admissions impact. But your specific question is about the “weight” schools place on these commitments, so let me focus on that part here.

First, you’re right. Many students are approaching community service hours like checking a box–as if it were a prerequisite for admission. Some high schools even require a minimum number of completed service hours to graduate. But most colleges don’t expect that every successful applicant will have worked at a blood drive or served soup at a homeless shelter. There’s no penalty imposed on students who choose to do other things. What colleges look for is evidence that a student has made both a commitment and an impact doing things he or she cares about. That might be volunteering at a non-profit, teaching illiterate adults to read, or training guide dogs for the blind. But it could also be working at Burger King, playing softball, taking photos for the yearbook or playing the bassoon. Impact can take many forms (more on that here).

So, a student who’s spending the bare minimum time and effort just to rack up some community service hours to list on their application could reasonably consider rededicating that time someplace else without any negative admissions ramifications. If your heart’s not in it, you’re not really giving—and the people you’re serving aren’t really getting—your best self in the name of the cause.

The one potential exception to this rule is if you’re applying to a school whose mission includes serving others. For example, some religiously affiliated colleges expect that an applicant will have dedicated time to her church and embraced the tenet of service. A student who’s chosen to spend the majority of her time in church-related activities that have included serving the less fortunate will likely have an admissions advantage over the student who spent that same time running track and taking art classes. The former student is more likely to accept an offer of admission and to thrive on campus because she’s already demonstrated that she’s aligned with the mission. When in doubt, read your college’s website carefully, as these schools won’t hide what they stand for.

And no matter where you apply, never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are “enough.” That’s like fingernails on the chalkboard to that audience.

Thanks for your question, Nicole. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Consistency in something vs. everything

Another solid entry from the University of Virginia’s blog, this one addressing the question of whether or not UVA looks for consistency in activities. It’s so refreshing to read that (1) they don’t value certain activities over others, (2) they don’t expect you to fill out the entire Common App activity chart, and (3) they don’t consider consistency a prerequisite.

Most colleges I can think of, with the possible exception of those offering specialized programs like performing arts, would agree with those activity guidelines.

Many students are reluctant to leave an activity behind and/or to pick up something new because they’ve heard that colleges want long-term, substantial commitments. But it’s important to understand the spirit of the law here. Like UVA, most colleges understand that teenagers change their minds. They don’t necessarily expect that an activity you first tried at age 14 will necessarily be one that you’ll stick with throughout high school.

But where consistency can become an issue is if you’re someone with a habit of picking up new activities and then putting them back down. Colleges do appreciate a student with the capacity to commit to something that matters to them long enough to make an impact. That capacity matters more than the type or quantity of the activities that benefit from it.

Consistency in something is a plus. Consistency in everything is not.