Who needs a champion?

In my life before Collegewise, I worked for a local office of The Princeton Review, best known as an SAT prep company.  But they prepare students for other exams, too, and for a two year stretch that immediately preceded my time there, the Princeton Review office where I worked enjoyed record-breaking enrollments in their LSAT course (the LSAT is the entrance exam for law school).  

But the enrollments never returned to those record highs.  Not even close  So I asked my boss what he thought had changed, and I never forgot his answer.

"Because The Princeton Review had an LSAT champion in Ian."

Ian was in charge of running the LSAT courses during their heyday at The Princeton Review.  He knew everything about the exam and loved teaching students how to beat it.  You could feel that energy when he would do free seminars for pre-law students.  Teachers he hired caught his contagious enthusiasm and passed it on to the students.  When Ian would write letters home to students about course details (yes, this was 1991 before everyone had email), he would always inject humor and spirit into his communication.  He wasn't just phoning it in.  He loved what he was doing and he was exceptionally good at it.

During Ian's tenure, everyone involved with the LSAT courses could sense they were getting
involved in something special, something they couldn't find from the
competition.  You can't fake that kind of enthusiasm Ian displayed.  That's why students enrolled in record numbers.

As my boss put it, "Once Ian took over the courses, the students just kept coming."

What project, organization, class, club or team in your life needs a champion?  What do you think would happen if you took it on the way that Ian took on the LSAT courses?  And most importantly, what would people be saying about you when your tenure as the champion was over?

If you want to make an impact that people will appreciate, find something or someone who needs champion.      

Not all quitters are created equal

Quitters often get a bad rap.

You've probably heard this advice:  "Whatever you do, never give up.  Don't be a quitter." 

But you've probably also heard the advice, "Find what you love to do.  Pursue your passions."

How can anyone possibly do both of those things simultaneously? 

We're conditioned to think that the only way to succeed, the only way to get ahead and achieve is to refuse to quit no matter what happens.  We're taught that success will come if we just keep going.

But if you follow that advice all the time, how are you supposed to find what you love to do?  It doesn't work.  And that's why a lot of the happiest, most successful people have quitting in their history. 

I'd like to propose that not all quitters are created equal.  There are good quitters and bad quitters. 

If you get one low grade on a math test and refuse to try anymore, you're a bad quitter.  You're giving up because something got difficult, and nobody who succeeds in life regularly gives up as soon as something gets challenging.  If you love being on the volleyball team but quit just because you didn't get picked as the starting setter, maybe you should have stayed and worked harder?  And if you quit your part time job just because you don't like the way your boss gets mad when you show up late, you really have some lessons to learn about the way the work world functions. 

But there are also good quitters.  

Good quitters quit the right things at the right times.  They can recognize when something they're involved in isn't bringing them any happiness or fulfillment.  They can sense when an activity, a job, a project, or a relationship isn't going anyplace successful or productive.  They'd rather spend their time on something with more potential.  So they quit and move on.  And they don't beat themselves up about it.

One of our former Collegewise students was a standout football player at his high school.  But he quit right before the start of his junior year.  Football wasn't making him happy.  In fact, it was making him miserable.  And he had been grinding through it just because he didn't want to be a quitter. 

But as he told us, he came to the realization that he simply longer wanted to do something in which he was regularly "congratulated for trying to take someone's head off."  He wanted to be doing other things that he thought would make him happier.  So he quit, joined a steel drum band at his high school, and started volunteering at his church.

He went on to attend and graduate from Notre Dame.  They didn't mind him being a (good) quitter.  

Here's the most important characteristic that distinguishes good quitters from bad quitters; bad quitters want to quit so just they can stop doing something.  Good quitters want the opportunity to do something else, something better for them, something they really want to throw themselves into, something that might even be harder.

For good quitters, it's not about getting more time to sleep or watch TV.  They quit because they've got bigger goals, not smaller ones. 

Quitters never win?  I don't buy that.  Bad quitters might never win.  Good quitters win all the time.

So don't be afraid to quit.  Be afraid of being a bad quitter.

Why high school activities can be career training

Getting ahead in your high school activities is a lot like trying to get ahead in a company.  Yes, you've got to make your boss (president, coach, editor, etc.) happy.  But you can do other things, too, that will be noticed and appreciated.   

1.  Figure out how to make your customers happier.

If a business delights its customers, that business is going to grow.  And if you are an integral part of making customers happy, you're going to have a good career.

Does your club or organization exist to provide something for others–like a service, entertainment, or guidance?  If so,  you've got customers.  The school newspaper and the student government exist to serve students.  Dance teams and cheerleaders exist to entertain fans at sporting events.  Peer mediators exist to resolve conflicts between other students. If you're in any organization that has customers, what ideas do you have that would make customers happier?  What contributions could you make to help achieve that goal. 

2. Energize and inspire your co-workers.

Some people at work just know how to make everyone else around them better.  They usually lead by example and show other people what it looks like to cheerfully work hard in an effort to make things happen.  They never say, "That's not my job."  What could you do to inspire the people around you and lead by example?  What recognition or acknowledgment could you give to other people to let them know that you recognize and appreciate their efforts.  What could you do to help your fellow tennis teammates, or members of the Spanish Club, or musicians in the jazz band celebrate and enjoy their experience even more?  Start by being as engaged and enthusiastic as possible, and other people will follow.   

3. Develop a deep product knowledge.

A copywriter at an ad agency who knows how to write good copy will do a good job.  A copywriter at an ad agency who knows how to write great copy because she's studied how to do it, who's also researched the most successful ad campaigns and knows the copy by heart, who's read about the business of advertising and has learned why some companies succeed and others fail, who wants to sit in on the meetings with the entire team so she can learn more about account management, design and media planning, that copywriter is going places. 

What more could you learn about your "business?"  Whether you're on the tall flag team, the school yearbook staff, the Red Cross Club, the student government, the school newspaper, or the football team, I promise you there is more you could learn about what it takes to be successful. You don't necessarily have to learn everything, but the more you know, the more valuable you will be.

Don't wait until you have a career to learn how to get ahead.  Start getting ahead now. 

Are you indispensable?

I just finished reading an interesting book called "Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?"  It wasn't written for high school students trying to get into college; but if you took its lessons and applied them to your high school life, I think you'd find yourself happier, more fulfilled, and more appealing to colleges. 

Here's the gist of the book:  If you want to have a successful career that you enjoy, it's not enough to just work hard, follow instructions, do what your boss tells you to do, and avoid mistakes.  That's fine if you do that, but it won't make you indispensable.  A boss can find lots and lots of other people who will follow instructions and do good–but not indispensable–work. 

Indispensable could mean being the best sales person who makes millions for a company.  But it can also be the grocery checker who's so warm and enthusiastic that customers love her and specifically come to that store because of her. It could be the waitress at the coffee shop who remembers customers' names and their favorite drinks and makes a great impression on everyone.  It's anyone who loves her work, puts her whole self into it, and in the process delights customers and co-workers.  It's these people who are getting and keeping the best jobs today because they're indispensable.  They can't easily be replaced.

Being indispensable isn't all about talent.  It's about attitude, investment, and energy that you bring to your job. You don't have to be the CEO of a company to do that, and you don't have to be the club president, the editor of the school newspaper, or the captain of the football team to do it in high school.

If you're on the student government and end up with the job of collecting tickets at the door for the homecoming dance, you can do that one of two ways.  You can show up on time, sit where you're supposed to sit, collect the tickets, not make any mistakes, and leave when it's over. 

Or you could show up a little early to help set up.  You could suggest that the table be moved to a different spot, because you can see that its current location will make it difficult for people to make an orderly line once the big crowd shoes up.  You could smile and enthusiastically greet people when they arrive.  You could tell people how great they look (and be especially complimentary to those kids who don't hear that kind of praise very often).  At your break, you could offer to go get some water and snacks for everyone working the table with you.  You could figure out ways to keep being valuable once most of the students have shown up, like picking up the tickets that students have dropped on the ground, checking in with the chaperones to see if they need anything, and offering to run out for more ice when you see it's running low.  And when the dance is over, you could be one of the last to leave, staying to help clean up and offering to help carry the tables back the cafeteria where they came from.

Which of those two approaches makes you more indispensable to the student government?  Which makes a bigger impression on the people around you?  And most importantly, which makes you feel better about yourself when you go home that night? 

Taking tickets is not a highly-visible job.  It's not something you'll list on your college applications.  It's not going to win you any awards.  There are few reasons to do it if you expect a tangible and immediate reward in return.   

But you have a choice about how to approach your role for that one night.  You can phone-it-in, do what you're supposed to do, and not make any mistakes.  Or you can use it as an opportunity to actually do a great performance, to bring your whole self to the role, to lead by example and show people that you're the kind of person who brings a lot to any job you do, whether or not it's important and visible. 

It's this kid, not necessarily the ones who have the most impressive titles, who's going places.

When I've written about kids who are active and engaged in class, those are the kids that teachers find indispensable. 

When I've written about kids who bring a positive attitude and work ethic even if they're not the best player on the soccer team, those are the kids that coaches find indispensable. 

When I've written about the kid who does community service not to chalk up hours but because she cares deeply about the mission of the organization, or the kid who doesn't get the lead in the school play but volunteers to run the lights, or the water polo player who leads the team's fundraising drive, or the kid who doesn't hold an office in the Spanish club but makes authentic tamales everyone loves for the meetings, or the kid who does scientific research with a college professor because he just has to know more about physics, those are the kids that are indispensable.

So, are you indispensable?  If you're not, what could you start doing today to become that way?

Some advice on choosing activities…

What you choose to do outside the classroom, and the passion with which you pursue it, tells the colleges a lot about the potential impact you are likely to make on their campuses.  As you think about how you want to spend your time outside the classroom, here are some pointers to keep in mind:

1.  Start with what you already know and like.
Think about what you like, and ask yourself, "What else could I do in this area?"  For example, if your passion is sports, there are a lot of ways to get involved.  Join a team at your school.  Be the manager of the baseball team.  Write the sports column for the school newspaper.  Be the announcer at the basketball games.  Take pictures of sports for the yearbook.  No matter what you like to do, if you commit yourself to it, the colleges will be impressed.

2.  Don't be a "joiner."

Don't sign up for every club on campus to try and make the colleges
think you were involved.  A long list of activities alone isn't going
to impress the colleges as much as a substantial commitment will.  Pick
the things you really enjoy instead of padding your resume.

3.  Always try to make an impact.
When you graduate from high school, what
legacy will you leave behind in your involvements?  It might be
something big, like the fact that you founded an organization that
raised $12,000 for Juvenile Diabetes.  It might be something small,
like the fact that even though you rarely played, you still got the
Coach's Award on the soccer team because of your dedication.  Whatever
you do, find a way to make contributions in your own way.  Colleges
like the students who make an impact wherever they are.

4.  Never ask, "Would (insert activity here) look good?"

Every time one of our Collegewise students asks us this, we make that
student go run a lap around our offices.  OK, not really, but that
question is like fingernails on the blackboard for us, and for the
colleges.  Instead, ask yourself, "Am I really interested in this, and
does is seem like something to which I could commit to substantially?"
If the answer is "yes," you're probably on the right track.

5.  Never quit an activity you enjoy just because you aren't succeeding.
If you love being on the soccer team even though you spend most of your time on the bench, don't
quit!  Colleges understand that you're not going to be great at
everything you do.  Besides, it takes just as much fortitude to stick
with something that's challenging as it does to continue in an activity
where everybody is always telling you how great you are.

Conversely, if you don't like an activity, get out!  If you hate every
second of wrestling and you got beaten so badly at the last match that
your liver fell out, stop.  Don’t wrestle anymore.  Find something else
that you enjoy where you won’t be slammed into a mat quite so often.

Not The Same Old Back-To-School Advice

Back_to_schoolGet good grades.  Get involved.  Get good test scores.  It’s all good advice.  But it’s advice you’ve probably heard before… a lot.  As students head back to school, here are five bits of Collegewise admissions advice to help you get in to college that might be new for you. 

1.  Practice the art of participating in class.

Raise your hand.  Ask questions.  Participate in classroom discussions.  Colleges don’t want students who just plow through courses and get good grades; they want students who are engaged in class, who like to learn, and who make contributions by participating.  In fact, that’s why colleges ask for letters of recommendation from your teachers–to learn if you’ve demonstrated these qualities.    

[Read more…]

Extra! Extra! “Regular Kids” Still Get In!

Nytimes Whenever we preach that kids can be regular teenagers and get into college, we always like to say that they can play guitar and work at the grocery store rather than paddle down the Amazon and cure athletes’ foot.  Those latter hyperboles tend to change depending upon our mood, but the guitar and grocery store are old standbys for us to show how regular kids with real passion are very appealing to colleges.

Imagine our delight at reading about Kevin Robinson in today’s New York Times, and 18 year-old senior in Pennsylvania who did exactly those things and is going to The George Washington University.  He even wrote his essay about how much he likes Parliament Funkadelic.

And this blogger will openly admit that he’s accused the New York Times of only printing the bad news about college admissions.  Thanks for showing us the good side!