Change makers

My number came up for jury duty this week. Anyone who’s gotten this particular call to serve knows that it begins with shuffling everyone scheduled to report that day into one large room for an overview of what to expect. Greg, our clerk, has the unenviable job of beginning his day by facing a room of more than a hundred people, many of whom are there by obligation alone, and explaining the procedures we’ll be following. He was cheerful but also particularly effective in that he changed the room in the first sixty seconds with his explanation of jury reimbursement.

“You’ll be compensated ten dollars a day, which I know is more than most of you paid to park here this morning. That figure isn’t something we’re proud of. In fact, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed since the Eisenhower administration.”

It came off as more empathetic than comedic, but it sure did get a laugh from a tough crowd. And with just one sentence, he won the room over in the most subtle but effective of ways—by showing us that he understood what we were feeling and experiencing.

Greg likely gives some version of that 20-minute overview every day. It would be so easy to just plod through it, to resign himself to the idea that nobody in the room particularly cared what he had to say and that there really was no point in doing more than the bare minimum.

But he’s clearly engaged in his job. He embraces the opportunity to change the posture of everyone in that room, not by following instructions or reading a script, but by bringing some emotional labor to the task at hand. Greg may not have the power to change the system, but he’s got the power to change the day for a lot of people. I’m guessing what we witnessed was just a glimpse of the magic he brings to work.

One of the best ways to stand out is to make change. And you don’t need a title or even a room full of people to do it.

A student who patiently tutors someone from a D to a B in algebra is changing that student’s academic progress. A student who finds ways to make the gym work as a senior prom location instead of bemoaning the reality that a different venue fell through is changing people’s moods. A student who treats every customer who orders a burger when she’s behind the counter like they’ve just made her day by showing up is changing people all day. None of these opportunities require special training or scarce opportunities. They’re available to you in ways that you’re already spending your time every day.

There’s a difference between executing and engaging, between just doing what you’re told and creating an interaction that’s bigger than the work. Not everyone can do what Greg did in front of a crowd. But everyone can do for someone or something what he did for our jury room.

Imagine what would happen if you made a point to consciously create change in whatever you’re doing. Sure, you’d make things better for a lot of people around you. But it’s hard to see how becoming a change maker wouldn’t also change you–and your college admissions chances.

Your value is their value

University of Virginia laudably goes out of its way to point out that they are not one of those schools that admits single-digit percentages of students and that the activities they value on an application may not mirror those of their more highly selective collegiate compatriots. But I can’t think of a selective college that would not agree with UVA’s recommendations for activities as described in their recent blog post.

It’s not about the activities you choose or even the total number of hours you spend doing any or all of them. It’s about your ability to seek out and engage with things you enjoy doing. Yes, the more selective the college, the bigger the impact you’ll need to demonstrate to separate yourself from the rest of the over-achieving applicants from around the world. But even the students interested in those colleges won’t get closer to admission by choosing the activities they think the college values most.

The more you value your chosen activities, the more your chosen colleges will value your choices.

Is “Find your passion” bad advice?

“Passion” has become something of a buzzword in college admissions. It’s what colleges say they appreciate. It’s what counselors advise kids to bring to the forefront in their applications. And I’ve certainly preached passion here. When a student finds, commits to, and then relates an interest that genuinely excites them, it leads to happier kids and more successful college applications.

But do we do kids a disservice if we lead them to believe that a fully formed passion is out there just waiting to be discovered?

Some people may pick up an instrument or a golf club or a paintbrush and immediately know that they’ve found a calling worth committing to. But that’s not how passion and people usually find each other.

What’s far more common is for a student (or an adult) to explore a variety of interests and eventually find something they initially enjoy. They spend some time learning the craft and find they have a knack for it. They get hooked on that feeling of continuously getting better at something that matters to them. Taken to a logical extreme, that commitment can eventually be defined as a passion. But it doesn’t happen overnight. And it often was an unpredictable discovery in retrospect.

When applied to college admissions, passion is best defined as an interest that lights a teenager up today. Teenagers are not fully formed, and the interest needn’t be connected to a future major or career path. While a college would hope that the student applying as an engineering major has more than a casual interest in mathematics, there is no shame in that applicant relating that their performances with their improv comedy troupe are the highlight of their high school week. From the college’s perspective, an applicant with passion has demonstrated the ability to seek, discover, and commit to something where they make an impact. That’s exactly the kind of student who will repeat that process within the boundless opportunities available at college.

Kids entering high school should explore different activities. If they have existing interests they want to follow, great. But if the unexplored seems appealing, we should let them go explore. There’s no formula to find passion, and the spark that could one day lead to it may be in something a student has never before thought to try.

As students progress through high school, encourage them to evaluate how they’re spending their time. What activities and interests do they seem to enjoy most? How might they become even more involved (if they feel the calling to do so), even if doing so required that they leave another activity they’re less attached to behind? That process of seeking and committing is where passion is most likely to present itself.

Passion, at least in its fully formed state, is rarely found and can’t be forced. It’s created when opportunity, interest, and commitment come together.

Here’s some scientific evidence out of Stanford University that “Find your passion” is bad advice. As the study points out, passion isn’t a fixed interest waiting to be discovered—it’s something to develop and cultivate.

Doing more than dabbling

A student asked me this week if writing a feature-length screenplay this summer would be a strong addition to his college applications. “Will this look good?” queries pop up all the time for college counselors, and it’s easy to have a visceral reaction when we assume this is yet another student intent on making every decision based on what colleges ostensibly want to see in an applicant. But I don’t find these questions unreasonable at all. If a college—one that is evaluating a student for admission—asks a student to share something, it’s only logical to want to know the response will be well-received.

Most good counselors approach questions like this in a similar way by first stripping college admissions out of the equation. Does this student really enjoy writing scripts? Is this a project they’re excited about? If college apps worked in such a way that the admissions office would never know about the screenplay, would the student still write it this summer, just because it’s something they genuinely wanted to do?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then go for it. Worry less about the college application impact and embrace the opportunity to do something productive that you really enjoy.

But outside judgement is a powerful force, especially when that evaluation leads to an admissions decision. So once we’ve established that a student is genuinely interested in something, a Collegewise counselor will try to give an honest answer about the potential impact. In this case, most colleges won’t take the time to read a submitted screenplay. And while “Wrote feature-length screenplay” sounds great, there’s no way to verify the strength–or even the existence–of the work. So I encouraged the student to think about ways he could really demonstrate his interest to an even greater degree.

Could he get some friends together who are interested in filming or directing and actually shoot the movie?

Could he take a screenwriting class at a local community college or even online (wouldn’t have to be expensive at all)?

Could he turn it into a play he performs with friends at school?

What else could this student do, this summer or after, that would show this lone screenplay is just one part of an even more compelling picture?

Not every activity should be taken to a reasonable extreme. So I reminded the student that if he just wanted to enjoy the freedom to write whatever he wanted to write without deadlines or direction and then call it a day, he should sit down at the keyboard and let the words fly. Don’t let the purported admissions correlation make that decision for you.

But if the idea of doing more than dabbling within an interest lights you up, then you’ve got the chance to boost your mood, your skills, and your college application.

Create a reason

I write often here about the value of the energy, attention, and personality you contribute both inside and outside of class. There are plenty of ways to make an impact that have nothing to do with honors, awards, and other accolades, and Seth Godin made a list in his most recent post, “Missing from your job description.”

Please don’t let admissions anxiety cause you to discount these suggestions as trivial or just not substantive enough to make a difference. Imagine if you consistently did even just 4-5 of them in those areas where you’re already spending your time. And even more importantly, imagine how many reasons there would then be for you to be missed if you stopped showing up.

How to evaluate your involvements

Too many students use the same metric to evaluate the ways they’re spending their time outside of class—will this look good to colleges? Most knowledgeable counselors—and colleges themselves—will tell you that this is the wrong metric to use and the wrong question to ask. There is no existing list of activities, hobbies, or other uses of your time that colleges universally consider good or better than any other. So if you want to check in with yourself and evaluate if you’re spending your time in ways that will pay off (regardless of how you would define paying off), here are three questions to focus on.

1. What are my strengths?
Finding fulfilling activities means knowing something about yourself. What are you predisposed to do well? When do you feel like you’re in the flow, performing at a high level and feeling energized by the experience? Whether your answer is talking to customers at the drive-thru window, working through calculus problems, or performing on a stage, if the act of doing it makes you feel energized today and eager to do even more of it tomorrow, it’s probably tapping into your existing strengths. Research has also shown that strengths improve more than weaknesses do. So if you’re looking to stand out, you’re better off doubling down on an existing strength than you are trying to polish a perceived imperfect weakness.

2. Do I get to use my strengths here?
If you’ve identified your strengths, it’s worth considering if you’re getting to use them within each activity. And if you’re not using them, is it because you’ve chosen the wrong activity, or because you’re not finding ways to use them within that activity? Your skills that make people enjoy working together aren’t being put to use if the club you joined seems to hold meetings but not do much else. Could you volunteer to organize a group to take on one of the club’s important projects? Whenever possible, find a way to put your strengths to use. And if you can’t, consider if your time might be happier and more productive spent doing something else.

3. Am I enjoying my experience?
Participating in your chosen activities should make you happy. If you genuinely hate going to volleyball practice or playing the viola or taking kung fu classes, the net effect seems negative whether or not you’re using your strengths. And consider the alternative scenario—maybe you love participating in something that you’re not particularly good at. Some of the most compelling essays I’ve ever read were from kids who loved an activity even though they were nowhere near great at it, like the slowest runner on the cross country team or the student who began his essay, “Artistically, I peaked in kindergarten,” but had spent several years taking art classes anyway just because he enjoyed them.

Most importantly, all of these questions keep the focus on the most important factor—you. Worry less about what colleges will appreciate. Worry more about finding ways to spend your time that you will appreciate.

How to demonstrate your leadership skills

“Leadership skills” are one of those traits that garners a lot of mentions in college applications and essays (e.g., “During my tenure as Student Body Treasurer, I developed leadership skills…”), but often without specific examples to substantiate them. Just holding a position or office isn’t evidence of leadership. Neither is just holding meetings every Tuesday during lunch. Real leaders have followers who are enrolled in a compelling vision of the future that the leader has vividly depicted.

If you’re interested in leading, or if you’re currently in a leadership position and want to gauge your progress, here are three questions to consider.

1. Are your people going somewhere?
The essence of leading followers is that you’re taking them somewhere. Is your team, club, or organization focused on a goal, change, improvement, or other destination? If not, then they’re not being led anywhere.

2. Are you the person who is painting the portrait of the destination?
Good leadership doesn’t stop with adding something to an agenda. It describes a compelling vision that people can see, to the point that it excites them and motivates them to follow you.

3. Are you modeling the behavior that will get you where you want to go?
Imagine a team captain who talked constantly of winning a championship but consistently missed practice, or didn’t learn the plays, or played so selfishly that it hurt the team’s chances of winning. The first step to earning trust from your followers is to do as you say. And the fastest way to lose those you’re leading is to show them that you’re all talk and no action.

And here’s a past post (with links to other articles) about leadership as demonstrated in college admissions.

Interested in creating a podcast?

High school students, would you be interested in an internship that culminates with you creating your own 30-episode podcast about a topic you care about? If so, consider applying to Seth Godin’s summer internship, “The Podcast Fellowship.” It’s designed for college students, but I don’t see why that should stop you from applying. Take a shot. Show him that you’re serious and dependable. It will cost you about $500 to participate if you’re selected. But financial aid is available. And even at full price, that’s a fraction of the cost of attending many formal summer programs. All the details and the application are here. I’ll let him describe his own program, but here are a few free application tips (all are from me, and none are officially Seth-endorsed).

  • The deadline to apply is April 10, but don’t wait that long. He’s mentioned when promoting many of his past programs that he’s more likely to admit someone who doesn’t apply at the last minute because (1) that’s when the bulk of the applications come in and (2) he prefers working with people who don’t wait until the last minute.

There are three short essay questions to answer:

  • Why do you want to make a podcast?
    Don’t do this because you want to put it on your college application (yes, it will look great, but that’s not the reason to do it). Be honest. Are you really passionate about a topic and just want to share it? Are you interested in media and exploring how to share ideas? Are you looking for a challenge, or to get out of your comfort zone, or to show that you’re capable of more than your GPA and test scores indicate? Your answer should tell him more about you. If it doesn’t, get more specific and drill down to your personal reasons for why you want to do this.
  • If you had to decide on a topic for your podcast right now, what would it be about?
    Don’t base your answer on what you think will sound impressive. Base it on what you would genuinely be excited to spend your summer learning about, developing, and ultimately sharing. Much like a topic for a college essay, if you genuinely care about it, the reader will care about it. And as I’ve written before, interests make you interesting.
  • And finally, tell us whatever else we need to know about you…
    My advice here is exactly the same as when a college interviewer begins your conversation with, “Tell me about yourself.” And I’ve shared that advice before, here and here.

If you apply and are accepted, please reach out and let me know. I’d love to congratulate you, and to hear your podcast!

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).