What’s most likely to motivate?

Parents and counselors, if a student is having trouble finding the motivation to make progress on their college applications, give motivational interviewing a try.

Motivational interviewing is a therapeutic technique to get patients to discover their own motivations for making a change–one that’s even been shown to be effective in the treatment of addiction. Here’s how to use it in practice.

Ask the student, “On a scale of 1-10, how motivated are you to work on your college applications?”

Chances are that the student will respond with a low score. Let’s say the student answers, “I’m a 3.”

Then ask the student, “Why aren’t you a 2 or a 1?”

Then the student begins to explain their reasoning. Maybe they’re excited about the colleges on their list, maybe they’ve already finished two of the applications and just need to keep going on the rest, maybe they have a good idea for an essay but just haven’t started it yet. Whatever their reasons are, accept them.

In explaining their self-reported score, the student is connecting with their autonomous motivations, those that aren’t handed down from others. Plenty of research (and common sense) has shown that motivation that comes from within is a lot more effective than that from an outside source.

And speaking of coming from within, students, you don’t need a parent or counselor to use the technique on you. You can use it on yourself. Give yourself a 1-10 score on motivation, and then really think about the reasons your score isn’t lower. Chances are, you’ll start connecting with what’s most likely to motivate you.

High school all over again

I’ve noticed that what sometimes may appear to be parents putting pressure on their kids—to achieve, to excel, to get admitted to famous colleges, etc.—is actually secondhand pressure. It’s pressure parents are feeling themselves that drifts downward to their kids.

All the messaging kids hear directly and indirectly about how important it is to get good grades, score well on standardized tests, thrive in extracurricular activities, etc. exists in parent form, too.

“Getting into college is so stressful and complex. Parents better seek out—and often pay for—all the latest information and advice!”

“A student’s future is too important to leave to chance. Parents better assume the role of ‘manager’ and make all the decisions for their kids.”

“Other parents are making college prep a top priority. You’re letting your kids down if you don’t join the race, too.”

Peer pressure, status competitions, the desire to belong—adults who thought they’d left their teen troubles behind back in high school re-experience them all over again, this time as parents of high school kids.

The good news is that the rule you heard back in high school that was hard to follow still applies—just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Deciding what’s right for your family—and letting your kids decide what’s right for them—is a healthier and more productive approach than succumbing to high school pressure all over again.

Praise both strengths and effort

I always read the regular emails I signed up to receive from The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley’s initiative driving scientific research into social and emotional well-being. While I’m always willing to hear the college admissions-related advice from someone who’s demonstrated real expertise around a topic, it’s nice to come across recommendations also backed by scientific research, like their latest share, “How to Support Your Kid at School Without Being a Helicopter Parent.” This passage particularly resonated with me:

“In everyday life, encourage your children to believe in their own strengths—whether around their behavior, a sport, creativity, or whatever else you see—by praising and valuing them yourself, particularly when they find school challenging. Perhaps even more importantly, notice and comment on their hard work when you see it. When children hear that solid effort leads to success, rather than getting the message that they should be smart and get good grades, they persist more. This helps them become more resilient when they suffer any setbacks in doing their schoolwork.”

How to Raise an Adult: fall book tour

I’ve referred to few experts more frequently in the last 18 months than I have Julie-Lythcott Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult. She recently launched a fall book tour, and if you’re interested, here’s the full schedule of dates and locations. Note that some dates are dedicated to her other book, Real American, which is about an entirely different topic (I have heard wonderful things about that book, too, but have not read it).

If she isn’t speaking near you and you’d like to get better acquainted with her message, I highly recommend How to Raise an Adult and her popular TED Talk.

School is a dress rehearsal for life

Braden Bell, a teacher and a writer, had been pondering what he’d do differently as his fifth (and final) child began middle school. He detailed his resolutions in a recent Washington Post piece, “To raise independent kids, treat middle school like a dress rehearsal for life.” Much of the insight, particularly this portion, is just as applicable for high school students.

“Middle school is a dress rehearsal. It’s almost always messy, and we worry that it foreshadows a disastrous future for our children. Meaning well, we jump in and initiate, fix and micromanage, telling ourselves we will stop when the child matures enough to take over. But middle school is supposed to be messy. It’s how kids mature. This means making lots of mistakes, then experiencing consequences just strong enough to be an incentive for correction, but not strong enough to damage a life.”


I’ve never heard a fellow adult say that what they appreciated most about their boss was how committed he or she was to micromanaging the employee’s every move.

Constantly asking for status updates, hovering (sometimes even literally) to ensure the work is done correctly, discouraging initiative and delaying the process by demanding every intended action first get the boss’s sign off—it doesn’t lead to happier employees or better outcomes. It impedes professional growth. It demoralizes people who would otherwise be willing to bring their best effort to work.

The dedicated micromanager is quick to defend their methods.

“It’s the only way to get the best out of my people.”

“Their work is ultimately my responsibility, and I can’t rely on anyone else to care about it like I do.”

“This is my management style, and I got to this place in my career for a reason.”

But the arguments just don’t hold up, especially when you crash that against the highest performing teams and the way that managers find ways for each individual employee to achieve the job’s desired outcomes without the boss legislating every step to get there.

So is it any surprise that microparenting is just as ineffective?

Our kids are not our employees. But I can’t think of a single example of a happy, engaged, successful Collegewise student who got that way because their mom or dad relentlessly pushed, managed and microparented their every move. Like the workplace, that hovering approach can sometimes lead to good results in the short term. But those short-term results come with long-term consequences that leave employees—and kids—less capable, less enthusiastic, and less impactful.

If you’ve been microparenting and have realized that you—and your kids—are ready for a change, here are three past posts with some (hopefully) encouraging words, specific advice, and links to additional articles to keep you going.

How to be a parental superhero

Make the effort

Just (let them) make progress

The conversation around homework

Is homework good for kids? Does it lead to better learning? Do today’s students have too much, or not enough? The Challenge Success folks just published a white paper that tries to answer these questions. And even more importantly, they finish with recommendations for teachers, and some for parents, on sensible, healthy homework approaches. I particularly appreciated this portion of the parent recommendations, which works just as well when you swap “teens” for “children.”

“Let children make mistakes and experience ‘successful failures.’ Recognize that a missed or poorly done homework assignment every now and then is not going to hurt your child in the long run. Parents can help students organize their time or prioritize assignments, but when parents regularly deliver forgotten assignments to school or step in to rescue a child at the last minute, they may be denying the child the opportunity to develop resilience and fortitude.”

For counselors…and parents…on taking advice

One way to spot a skilled veteran of college admissions counseling is to note how little time they spend trying to convince parents to take their advice.

A parent insists on sending their son to an expensive summer program at a prestigious college over their son’s desire to get a part-time job at a local grocery store.

A family plans to send extra letters of recommendation from alumni they believe to be influential despite the fact that the connections really don’t know the student.

A parent overrides their student’s choice for a college essay topic and argues for a different story about the one day their daughter spent working at a soup kitchen three years ago.

These are common situations for many counselors. But the experienced professional won’t get bogged down in an admissions debate.

A big part of that lack of discord is the counselor’s ability to understand and respond to the family’s needs, to convey the right advice at the right time, and to ensure that the family feels heard even if the ensuing advice is not necessarily what they expected.

But more importantly, good counselors know that it’s rarely good—or effective—practice to spend too much time convincing a family to do anything, least of all to take the counselor’s advice.

It’s a counselor’s job to make sure a family has all the necessary information. It’s a counselor’s job to clearly explain the potential ramifications of a parent’s desired course of action. And depending on the service being provided, it’s a counselor’s job to express a professionally informed opinion and to tie that recommendation to the best interest of the student and the family.

But it’s also the counselor’s job to let the family make their own decisions. And it really should never be a counselor’s job to argue.

Counselors who work in high schools do face situations, particularly where a student’s health or safety is at risk, where they’re ethically or even legally bound to do more than just share their opinion and let the student make up their own mind (and those counselors are well-trained to recognize and act on those situations).

But that’s almost never the case with college admissions.

If you’re a counselor who’s spending more time than feels productive or necessary trying to convince families to take your advice, here’s a past post, with some additional links to other relevant write-ups, to help you address those situations.

And parents, please remember that you have every right to expect that your counselor will take the time to hear your concerns and to understand your point of view. You also have every right to expect your counselor to deliver clear, informed advice about how to help your student get where they want to go. But you should not expect your counselor to necessarily endorse your plan, and you should not seek a lengthy debate when your suggested approaches differ.

If you told your doctor you planned to combat high blood pressure with bacon and inactivity, she would tell you why that’s a bad idea, and she would patiently explain why her recommended approach of a good diet and regular exercise is a better way to go. But she probably would not spend a lot of time debating your differing views. It’s your body (and your bacon) after all.

Counselors and parents, take the time to hear each other, to understand your points of view, and to explain your desired actions. And please make sure the student has the loudest voice. It’s their journey, and their future college, after all.

A different approach to teen motivation?

When a prospective Collegewise parent tells one of our counselors that they just need someone to “motivate” their student, we ask a lot of follow-up questions to learn more about exactly what that outcome would look like in the parent’s mind. The truth is that motivation and engagement are often happy byproducts of our work together, but motivating unmotivated kids isn’t an outcome we can sell or promise to deliver.

So, as a parent, is there anything you can do to motivate your student to take school and college admissions as seriously as you’d like them to?

School consultant and author Ana Homayoun shares some good advice in this Washington Post piece, “How to motivate older kids without using rewards, punishment or fear. (No, really.)

It might be tempting to dismiss her recommendations as being idealistic. Tactics like giving kids more autonomy or allowing them to set their own goals might actually seem detrimental if your student has consistently shown that school naturally falls towards the bottom of their priority list.

But science and some prominent authors like Dan Pink have shown that autonomy is more effective than control, that people who set their own goals outperform those who have goals foisted on them, and that knowing why you’re doing something helps you do it better.

If continuous pushing or prodding or outright nagging are frustrating both you and your student, maybe it’s worth taking a different approach to finding their motivation?

Here are a few past posts with Dan Pink’s advice, one on ditching the carrot-stick approach and another on how to praise kids effectively.

If every day were the first day of school

My social media feed is starting to fill up with “first day of school” photos from fellow parents, along with the appropriate sentiments. Kids posed—some more enthusiastically than others–on the doorstep or outside the car or even on the school grounds, sometimes with a sibling or two. They all had their first day of school documented proudly and a touch wistfully by Mom or Dad.

“It’s official! My two babies are now both high schoolers.”

“Last day of elementary school. Where did the time go?”

“For the first time, he’s driving himself to the first day of school.”

Whether a parent decides to share these moments with their internet circle or to keep them as personal mementos, the sentiment is spot-on. Watching our kids grow up is the pleasure and occasional pain of parenting. These are the moments we remember, not because we document them, but because we’re moved by the progression and the change. It’s hard to forget the day your kindergartner wouldn’t leave your side to walk into that new classroom. Or when you practically had to restrain your fifth or seventh or eleventh grader for a quick photo before they fled from your side.

But for many parents, the enjoyment we feel around marking the milestone on day #1 is soon replaced by the stress of outside measurement of our student’s performance.

The first day of school is a blank slate. There are no grades or test scores or other measures to worry about yet. But then the first exam comes home, the first grade, the first test score–some performance-related measurement that doesn’t have anything to do with their character or growth or value as a human being. Anxiety creeps in. Is this good enough? If it’s not, how do we fix it? What action can we take?

That’s when their journey of growth transforms (back) into a race with the competition, one that, for many families, won’t stop until the student is admitted to a prestigious college.

Parents, I think we can do better than that.

What would it take to treat every day of school like the first day of school, a day when you just sit back and marvel at the kid you’ve raised? What if instead of worrying about the C+ in chemistry, you could just appreciate how wonderful it is that your former baby now gets himself to school and tries his best and is nice to his sister? What if instead of worrying about yet another round of test prep you could just stop and be proud of how much she loves playing the French horn or leading in the math club or running on the track team?

What if you paid more attention to the lasting milestones of their journey to adulthood and less attention to the fleeting academic, testing, and admissions measurements that come along with it?

I’m not implying that these measurements don’t matter at all. They carry temporary significance that becomes less impactful as each assumes a place in the past. But you can hold onto those milestones—and their associated photos—for years to come.

The journey gets better for both kids and parents if you treat every day like the first day of school.