Goofing off = better learning

Dr. Lea Waters is the author of The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. Here’s a snippet from her recent article in The Atlantic, “How Goofing Off Helps Kids Learn.”

“When parents seek my advice about what activities their child should be doing, they’re often surprised when I pare down their proposed list and prescribe free time during the week for good goofing off. It’s not that kids aren’t paying attention during this time, it’s that their attention has shifted within. Important things are going on in there. Even adults can only pay attention for about 20 minutes at a time before getting less effective. When a child has finished her math homework and is taking time between assignments to make a smoothie or read a chapter in a book, or when he comes home after school and blows off steam by shooting baskets in the backyard for an hour before starting his homework, the brain is still processing information very effectively. It’s sorting through what it’s taken in, attaching emotional meaning to it, cementing it in memory, and integrating it into the individual’s core self. It’s all part of building a child’s identity, about learning who they are apart from what they do.”

What’s the high school version?

If you’re one of those high school students who already has a future career in mind, consider this: what’s the high school version of that career?

Maybe you want to be a teacher. You can’t apply to a school and start teaching math next week. But you could pick something you know a lot about and teach other people how to do it. Start a YouTube channel and show people how to sketch freehand. Propose a continuing education class to a local community college and teach people how to program. Volunteer with a local organization that teaches illiterate adults how to read. Teaching in a school classroom might be limited to those with the right credentials. But the high school version lets you start teaching today.

A future doctor can get certified as an emergency medical technician and spend the summer running IVs in an ambulance.

A future full-time programmer can learn, experiment with, and spend time programming in their spare time.

If you want to make a living as a writer tomorrow, what’s stopping you from writing for a blog today?

Actors who spend two years vying for spots in community theater productions, or performing with a local improv group, or producing plays for elementary school kids will be a lot further ahead in their professional quest than those who limited their participation to high school productions.

Want to be a sports agent someday? Pick a sport at your high school and ask the coach, “What do your athletes need?” Then make it your quest to help them get it. Help raise funds to buy new uniforms for the lacrosse team. Find guest coaches to run clinics for the softball team. Handle all the logistics for the cross country team’s summer stay in the mountains to train at altitude. Imagine how much you’d learn about selling, strategizing, and advocating. Sounds like a budding sports agent to me.

Politics, philanthropy, business, art, music, dance, entrepreneurship–I can’t think of a profession that you couldn’t take some small (or even some surprisingly large) first steps towards while you’re still in high school.

What’s the high school version of your future career?

“Show, don’t tell…”

Fans of ABC’s Shark Tank, where investment-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks), have seen this scenario play out on the show. The sharks are interested, but on the fence, questioning if there’s enough potential in this business to earn their time, money, and attention. Sensing that he or she is at risk of losing their potential deal, the entrepreneur tries to tell the sharks what sets them apart.

“I’m relentless. I will not give up.”

“You won’t find someone who works harder than I do.”

“I am passionate about this!”

I’ve seen almost every episode of Shark Tank, but I’ve never seen any of these statements alone lure a shark to make an offer.

Persistence, hard work, and passion are prerequisites for entrepreneurial success. And just because you do those things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business.

Would an NFL coach be swayed just because you claimed to practice hard?

Would a potential romantic partner be swayed just because you claimed to be a nice person?

Would a recruiter at Google or Apple be swayed just because you claimed to be passionate about technology?

In each of these cases—and on Shark Tank—showing works a lot better than telling does.

If you want to see how showing versus telling is done, scroll to 3:50 of this Shark Tank clip and watch entrepreneur Nathan Holzapfel. In just 20 seconds, he gets the sharks interested, not by telling them that he works hard and he cares and he keeps going, but by actually showing them. 20 seconds is all it takes for him to get billionaire investor Mark Cuban to belt out, “I love you—I LOVE you!”

When you’re writing your college essays, don’t just tell colleges that you’re resilient or hard-working or passionate. Show them.

And if you’re working your way through high school, remember that the best way to be successful and to get into college is to put your natural strengths to the best use so you have something to show for them.

Five reads on leadership & college admissions

Leadership is one of the most misunderstood traits in the college admissions process. That fundamental misunderstanding is why students who are thriving at their part-time jobs, in their after-school art classes, or in their martial arts training will ask if their lack of leadership will hurt their admissions chances. It’s why so many kids start clubs in the fall of their senior year so they can list them on their college applications. And it’s why so many parents feel pressured to send their kids to expensive summer programs that claim to have identified their students as emerging high school leaders and promise to enhance their skills.

If you’d like to better understand how colleges actually view, evaluate, and reward leadership, here are five quick reads that will dispel most of the myths, help you identify if and how your own leadership could be an admissions strength, and potentially relieve you of any unnecessary feelings of leadership shortcomings.

Here’s a great reminder from the University of Virginia that colleges appreciate leadership, but not more or less so than they do plenty of other valuable high school experiences.

A broader sampling of colleges’ views courtesy of Brennan Barnard, who asked a number of college admissions officers to share their thoughts on what it means to lead.

Here’s an example of effective leadership at the high school level.

And another example, this one of leadership without an official title.

And finally, some advice on how to be a leader without a leadership position.

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!

Purported recognition

On Friday, my business partner Arun Ponnusamy forwarded all of our counselors a spam email he received from the National Society of High School Scholars. This was the entirety of Arun’s message (if you sense his contempt, it’s for the company sending the email, not for the families who are asking the question):

“At least once a year, a parent will reach out to me about a letter their kid received in the mail about being selected for a very prestigious honor society that just happens to cost a chunk of change. ‘Is it legit?’ No, it’s not. It’s a marketing database under the guise of some academic entity. Don’t let your students join NSHSS. And please don’t ever let them put it on their apps either.”

Considering that in his life before Collegewise, Arun read applications at the University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA, and that he’s now helped hundreds of students through the college admissions process as a counselor, applicants would be smart to follow his advice.

And here’s a collection of my past posts cautioning families against paying for purported recognition.

Broad recognition vs. broad impact

One way to stand out in college admissions is to achieve broad recognition. The student who played violin at Carnegie Hall has achieved broader recognition for his musical abilities than the first chair in the school orchestra has. A national champion debater has broader recognition than the student who won the county competition does. “All- American” is broader recognition than “All-League.” Depending on how good you are at your chosen activity, your recognition may grow from school, to city, to county, to state, to country, and in rare cases (like teenage Olympic medalists), the world.

Effective? Yes. But broad recognition is also one of the most difficult to achieve.

A different and potentially easier path? Broad impact.

What if you organized a small cadre of musicians from the orchestra that eventually played at over 30 community events last year?

What if you started a blog with tales and tips for other speech and debate competitors, and grew it to a readership of 2,000 subscribers?

What if you offered pitching clinics on the weekends for kids, and later had a roster of 15 young hurlers who regularly show up to learn their craft from you?

Naysayers will tell you that being an All-American is more impressive than writing a blog. But we’re not all going to be state, national, or world champions. And that’s OK. Impact takes many forms. If you don’t exactly compete at the highest levels and you’d like to make your chosen activity stand out more, take what you already enjoy doing, then find a way to share it with people who will appreciate it as participants, viewers, listeners, readers, benefactors, etc.

Broad impact is available to anyone willing to create it.

Self-starters

There’s one type of person that groups, organizations, businesses, and yes, colleges can’t ever get enough of: self-starters.

There are tasks to get done, new things to try, problems to fix, and improvements to be made. Everyone else is missing them, otherwise they’d be happening now. What a great opportunity.

No audition, application, nomination, election, or admission necessary. All you need is a willingness to step up and (self) start.

Rest easy, and work hard

One of the pieces of college planning advice I feel most strongly about is one many people just don’t believe—get a job. Plenty of high school kids get part-time jobs, but too many families think the only way a job could possibly impress a college is if it’s a high-profile internship, a start-up later sold for big bucks, a research project with a professor that led to the cure for athlete’s foot, etc.

If you’re able to secure something like that (without your parents doing it for you), more power to you. But I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you there is just something inherently likeable and endearing about a teenager who works a regular job washing dishes, manning the register, refereeing youth soccer games, etc. It’s something we’ve heard from every one of our counselors who worked in admissions, including those who came to us from highly selective colleges.

Unlike so many parts of the college admissions process, regular part-time jobs are still pure. An overzealous parent can’t get a kid a job scooping ice cream. A high-priced tutor can’t be paid to get a student promoted at a fast-food restaurant. A private counselor with a propensity to do too much can’t hijack a student’s job interview like they can a college essay.

If your interest is piqued, here are a few relevant past posts on this topic:

If you’ve already planned a fulfilling and relaxing summer you’re excited about, no need to turn those plans upside down just to take my advice. But if you’re still searching for summer plans, or if you’ve considered getting a part-time job but are worried you’d be put at a college admissions disadvantage for waiting tables over attending Harvard Summer School, rest easy. And work hard.

Do colleges appreciate solitary activities?

Any discussion of the potential admissions value of a high school activity usually involves some combination of accolades, impact, and helping others. Your captainship of the cheerleading squad, published articles for the school paper, volunteer hours with Habitat for Humanity—they all involve contributing to a team, a project, a cause, or some other benefactor.

But what if an activity you really enjoy is something you do just for yourself, one that doesn’t improve, impact, or even involve anyone else?

What if you love to write poetry but don’t have any desire to publish or share it?

What if you teach yourself to play songs on the piano but you get stage fright even imagining performing?

What if you like to draw, or cook your own dinner a few nights a week, or make old-school scrapbooks to preserve your own memories, but choose to reserve those hobbies just for your own enjoyment?

Students frequently ask our Collegewise counselors some version of these questions. They have an activity, interest, or hobby they enjoy, one in which they aren’t trying to master or win or solve anything. It’s something they do just for themselves. And they wonder if colleges will see any value in that time.

First, it’s important to remember that not everything in your life should be about getting into college. If you work hard, get good grades, and you really enjoy playing 30 minutes of video games every night before you go to sleep, I can’t think of a college that would begrudge that fun. It’s important to have balance in your life. And part of that means doing things that aren’t measured, evaluated, or otherwise judged against the metrics of getting into college.

Also, interests—even those that aren’t typical activities—make you interesting. Would you enjoy a first date with someone who talked only about their GPA, test scores, and number of community service hours they’ve completed? Probably not. And a dorm full of 18-22 year olds with their own interests, hobbies, and ideas is a lot more interesting than one where every resident is a resume-padding robot.

But if you just can’t resist evaluating even your off-time, here are a few questions to ask yourself about that thing you do that’s just for you.

Is it taking time away from work you should be doing?
“Do no harm” is a good rule of thumb for just about anything that you do. If you’ve got a record in and out of the classroom that you’re proud of, there’s no harm in allowing yourself the frivolous novel from your favorite author even if that book would never make its way into your English class. On the other hand, those nighttime video game sessions aren’t so harmless if they’re getting in the way of completing your assignments or studying as much as you should. Balance works both ways.

Is this time paying you back in some way?
What do you get from the way you’re spending this time? Do you enjoy it? Does it relax you? Does it break up the monotony of the day, make you feel rewarded for other work well done, or otherwise do something that benefits you? Einstein used to play the violin alone when he needed to work through a difficult problem. Whether this time helps you relax or conquer physics, if it gives something back without taking too much, that’s probably a good trade-off.

Do you exert physical, mental, or emotional effort during this time?
You don’t have to be on the cross country team to benefit from running. Watching and learning from guitar tutorials on YouTube is an exercise in curiosity even if you don’t play in public. And those freehand drawings you care so much about getting right are worth something to you even if those sketches stay tucked away in your notebook.

Is there a by-product of this time?
Maybe this solitary poetry pursuit has made you excited to attend poetry readings in college. Maybe those solo runs led to your interest in learning more about sports medicine. And maybe you wouldn’t mind sharing some of those delectable dishes you’ve learned to cook when you live with college roommates. Sometimes that thing you do just for yourself leads to other interesting and even not-so-solitary pursuits. Even the most involved passions had to start somewhere. If that seemingly insignificant thing you’re doing now is also leading you to new discoveries, connections, or interests, you just might be on your way to something bigger.

And if you’re just not comfortable participating in traditional activities because you’re on the shy side or you just need a little more confidence to engage at that level, see this past post, “Five college planning tips for introverts.”

What are you doing this summer?

One of the many symptoms of the college admissions frenzy is the extension of classes, activities, and other seemingly productive expenditures of student time and energy into the summer months. While the intensity may be misguided, the spirit is not. Motivated, curious, interesting students don’t want to spend their summer sitting on the couch every day. That’s why so many colleges ask students to describe how they spent their summers. They can learn a lot by how you choose to spend your time when you’re not on the clock.

But just about every college in the country—including the most selective—would also encourage you to enjoy some downtime this summer. Sleep in, go outside, see your friends, and do lots of other things that have absolutely nothing to do with getting into college. Even professional athletes have an off-season. And teenagers, especially those who work hard in challenging classes and demanding activities during the school year, need time off to rest and recharge.

If you’d like some suggestions on how to plan a summer that will not only be enjoyable and productive, but also allow you to be a teenager rather than a resume-building machine, here are two Collegewise resources I share annually.

First, here’s my past post, 50 Ways to Spend your Summer.

And here is the far more detailed Collegewise Summer Planning Guide.

I hope you use them, and more importantly, I hope you share them with fellow students, parents, and counselors.