How to spot a smart person in the room

Here's a good way to spot someone who's smart and engaged.  When the conversation turns to something they don't understand, when there's a term or concept that's unfamiliar to them, that person doesn't sit there and nod his head.  He doesn't pretend to understand when he doesn't.  He doesn't disengage and become less interested just because he's no longer following.  He confidently and politely says,

"I'm sorry.  I was with you until just a second ago.  What does that mean?"

High school teaches you to believe that you should always know the answer.  When you're doing a problem in trig, answering a question on the SAT, or being called on by your Spanish teacher and you don't know the answer, it's bad.  There are points deducted and penalties to pay.

But here's the thing about smart people–they don't always know the answer.  Nobody does.  And how you handle yourself at those times says a lot about you and your desire to learn.

Chris Rock on accountability

I've written posts before about the importance of students accepting responsibility, rather than blaming other people for their mistakes.  Of course, it's not just a good lesson for kids.  It's one of the secrets of successful adults, too.

From comedian Chris Rock while being interviewed on Inside the Actor's Studio:

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It's never the audience's fault.  Never.  Ever, ever, ever.  If the movie's not good, it's my fault.  TV show's not good?  It's my fault.  Any time I'm in front of the audience–I don't care if somebody got shot in the middle of the show–if I can't get the crowd back, it is my fault.  It is my responsibility to rock the house every…single…time.  No matter what."

The quote comes about 5 minutes into this clip.

A prescription for over-scheduled kids

A lot of today's high school students are completely over-scheduled with absolutely no free time.  That's hazardous to their mental health as well as to their college admissions chances.

It's easy to spot a kid who's over-scheduled.  It's a teenager who doesn't have any life in her face.  She's tired and stressed out.  She spends all her time doing formal activities and meeting with tutors, making calculated choices based on what she thinks will help her get into college. 

If you ask her what she does for fun, she doesn't have an answer.  She doesn't feel confident about her ability to measure up to expectations–her parents', the colleges' or her own.  She spends a lot of time trying to fix her weaknesses, meeting with math tutors and doing test prep.  

If that sounds like you (or your teen), here are some suggestions to help you reclaim some time.

1.  Every day, reserve an hour of time that is just for you.

This should be a time you get to spend doing something that makes you happy.  And don't you dare use that time to study SAT vocabulary.  This is your time to read US Weekly, or play guitar with nobody watching, or listen to music, or play video games.  I don't care what it is.  Don't justify it to anybody.  Just do it.

2. Cut back on the time you spend trying to fix weaknesses. 

It is absurd to think that anyone including the colleges expects you to be great at everything.  If you're meeting with a guitar teacher because you're not very good at guitar but you really want to be, that's great.  But if you're doing yet another round of test-prep for the SAT because your first three tries aren't in Stanford's range, ditch your SAT tutor and pick up the guitar (or the video game or US Weekly).

3.  Don't measure everything by its potential value to colleges.

Your high school career should be about lots of things, and preparing for college is certainly one of them.  But it should also be about being a regular teenager.  Regularly do things that will in no way help you get into college.  Being productive is a good thing, but scheduling every second of your day trying to please colleges is just unreasonable.

4.  Sleep more.  

I'm serious.  Too many kids talk about how they're sleeping 5 or fewer hours a night.  No good.  You need to sleep to function well, to be happy and to enjoy your life.  If there's just no way you could sleep more and still get everything done, then you need to follow tip #2 above and tip #5 below.

5.  Quit any activities that you don't enjoy and/or don't really care about.

It's better (and less stressful) to do a few things that really matter to you than too many that don't.  If you don't look forward to doing one of your activities and/or it just doesn't mean much to you, quit.  If you're worried that quitting will make you look like, well, a quitter on your college applications, then don't list that activity at all.  Problem solved.   

Bonus suggestion:  If you read these tips and say, "I don't have time for free time and sleeping more," buy "How to Be a High School Superstar" and read pages 55-77 about "How to reduce your homework time by 75%."

This is what college should be like

Today, I'm spending all day at a seminar given by one of my favorite authors.  It's expensive.  It's happening at our busiest time of year.  I'll be up at the crack of dawn to take a train over an hour each way so I can avoid what would almost certainly be three hours of LA traffic if I drove.  And I can't wait to go.

I want to get there early so I can sit close to the front.  I've spent the last week thinking about what I want to learn and what questions I want to ask.  I'd go every day this week if he offered it. 

I wish I'd felt this way about my classes in college.

I don't remember ever being this excited to attend a class in college.  And believe me, that wasn't my college's fault.  I did what too many college kids do.  I picked the major I thought I should pick.  I took the classes I had to take to graduate.  School wasn't the fun part of college.  It was the business I had to take care of for the right to do other things I thought were more interesting.

If I could go back again, I would make it my mission to find classes that I was as excited about as I am for this seminar tomorrow.  I would have enrolled in five classes each semester, attended them for a week, and then droppped the one or two that just didn't seem as exciting.  I would have sought out professors I'd heard great things about, gone to their office hours and talked about what we were learning. 

I'm not suggesting that I would have found the easiest classes so I could skate through college.  I would have found the classes that made me want to work harder just because they were so interesting.  My college life was great, but it would have been even better if I'd done these things.

High school doesn't offer you the opportunity to follow your academic interests the way that your college will.  So before you go to college, adjust your expectations of just how great school and learning can really be.  Make it your job to find classes, professors and a major that make you want to get up in the morning and keep learning. 

I know that might sound totally ridiculous if you're in high school right now, especially if you're taking AP Everything and just trying to survive.  But you will have the opportunity to create a great learning experience wherever you go to college.  The only question is whether or not you'll take advantage of it.  

Are you the Randy Moss of the classroom?

Randy Moss is one of the greatest receivers ever to play in the NFL.  And as of today, he appears to have been cut from his team (again).

Nobody disputes that Moss is a great receiver.  It's his attitude that's the problem.  He's known to give up in the middle of a play especially if he doesn't think the ball is coming to him.  He complains (about coaches, the team, and not getting the ball thrown to him often enough).  He can make a team a lot better when he wants to, but coaches know that they can't count on him to lead by example with a good attitude and a consistent work ethic.  That's why it appears that he's unemployed for the second time in three months.  

A straight-A student who only participates when participation is counted towards his grade, who only talks to teachers after class when he needs extra credit, who fought with his counselor for two weeks to get his Spanish grade changed from a B to an A, and who seems to care a lot more about his grade than he does about learning the material?   He's like the Randy Moss of the classroom.

Your attitude towards learning says as much if not more about what kind of student you are than your grades do.  The students who teachers enjoy having in class, who teachers are happy to recommend strongly to their chosen colleges, they're often those who have the best attitudes, even if they don't have the highest grades.

A lot of receivers who aren't nearly as good as Randy Moss still have jobs today.  They don't have better hands–they just have better attitudes.   

 

A homework and study tip

Imagine you were taking the SAT and every 5 minutes, somebody interrupted you and asked you a question like,

"Excuse me, do you know what time it is"?

"How do I get to the closest deli from here?"

"Want to hear a funny story about my most embarrassing moment?  Well, here it is."

Every five minutes, for the entire 3 and 1/2 hours.  What a disaster. 

Wouldn't it completely disrupt your concentration?  Could you possibly be expected to focus and do well while wading through critical reading passages and trying to figure out math questions about two trains leaving two different destinations, one traveling at 1/3 the speed of the other train?

No matter what score you got, you'd know you could have done better if that idiot would have just shut up and let you concentrate.  You'd feel like you didn't even get a fair chance to do well on the test. 

If you're answering emails, texting or checking Facebook every five minutes while you're trying to study, isn't that pretty much the same thing?  

 

Why “it gets better” in college

I've often said to groups of high school students when I'm giving a college admissions talk, "In college, there's always someone who's stranger than you are." 

I used to say it because I wanted kids to know that the narrow social definitions of what's OK and not OK during the high school years disappear at most colleges.  I've always hoped there would be a few kids in the audience who could use that as yet another reason to be excited about going to college, whether or not it was in the Ivy League.

But anyone paying attention to the news these days can see things seem to be getting worse in high school.  It's not just about being told you're not wearing the right clothes, or not athletic or not listening to the right music. Some kids being psychologically and physically tortured by other students to the point that they don't want to live anymore.  And in response, a lot of people, from writers to musicians, to college kids are reminding them that it gets better.

I don't want to cheapen those recent tragedies by turning them into some kind of college admissions lesson.  And I know I can't make much of a dent here on my little blog.  But I do want to remind high school students who read this of one thing.

College is a place where individuality is celebrated. Sure, some colleges feel more like high school than others do, but there are plenty of colleges out there where the further you are from the mainstream, the better.  You'd never look or feel out of place, no matter how different you're made to feel are right now.

Whether you're someone whose high school years are being made miserable, or if you're just the kid who's never known or cared where the cool party is, you don't have to just cross your fingers and hope that it gets better someday.  You get to choose the type of college environment you want to live in just three months after high school graduation. Think about the kind of place you'd like to be.  What kind of people would you like to be around?  What would you like your college to stand for?  What would make you happy?  Whatever your answers to those questions are, there's a college out there for you.  You just have to find it.

There are over 2,000 colleges in the country and most of them take pretty much everybody who applies (that's surprising, but true).  You've got all kinds of choices.  So get yourself a good college guidebook, go to a college fair, or talk to your counselor about colleges that might be right for you.  Use your college search as a chance to create your ideal post-high school environment.  As you start to find schools that fit your vision, you'll have something to look forward to.  You'll get even more excited about life after high school.  And you'll probably feel it starting to get a little better already. 

Don’t blame other people–find a way to make it work

When you're explaining any type of academic under-performance, be careful blaming other people. 

Sometimes your academic performance suffers for a legitimate reason.  Maybe you were ill and had to miss several weeks of school.  Maybe you were only recently diagnosed with a learning disability.  Maybe you had to help take care of your sister when your parents could no longer send her to daycare.  You shouldn't hesitate to explain those circumstances that really were beyond your control. 

But blaming other people sounds like this:

"I got a 'C' because of a personality conflict with the teacher."

"I didn't do well in Spanish, but the language department at my school is terrible."

"I was just 3 points away from 'A,' but my teacher refused to raise the grade."

When you make excuses like those that blame other people, the colleges inevitably think,

"Well, another kid in that class still got an 'A'."

I don't deny that those excuses may be legitimate in some cases.  But sometimes, you get a bad teacher.  It could happen in college, too.  And after college, you might have a bad boss.  Or a bad landlord.  Or a bad mother-in-law.  When that happens, you won't always be able to just resign yourself and blame someone else.  Sometimes you're stuck and you have to figure out a way to make it work.

High school is a great training ground for this.  If you really do have a personality conflict with a teacher, what are the other students doing differently that you are (or are not) doing?  If the language department at your school really is terrible, what steps could you take to improve your own learning experience?  And if you really were just 3 points away from an A, remind yourself that lots of things, from Olympic gold medals to sales awards at big companies are based on systems where the highest numbers win. 

Colleges–and future employers–aren't looking for the students who blame other people.  They want the students who find a way to make it work. 

Balance rigor with reality

Some students can take the hardest available classes and still do well, have fun, and sleep regularly.  But everyone has different abilities.  Part of being successful in high school means pushing towards, but not past, your own academic limits. 

You should enjoy your activities.  You should get enough sleep.  You should see your friends, have fun and occasionally do things that have nothing to do with college admissions or improving yourself.  

There is nothing wrong with a course schedule that demands hard work.  Some stress and the occasional late night are OK, too.  But no college in the world would want you to make yourself unhappy or unhealthy because of your classes.  Even the highest achievers still need to be happy and well-adjusted teenagers.       

If you’re hoping to go to one of those schools that rejects most of the people who apply, you’re going to need to take the most demanding courses offered at your school and you’ll need to get A’s in just about all of them.  But most of the over 2000 colleges don’t demand that kind of perfection from their applicants. 

Work hard and take classes that challenge your academic limits.  But balance that rigor with reality so you can be a happy and well-rested teenager, too. 

How great students are like Academy Award winners

Great students who get noticed by colleges don’t just have high GPAs.  They deliver great learning performances.

Lots of actors have great careers.  But the few who win an Academy Award are recognized for one particularly great performance when
the movie and the role and the script seemed to match perfectly with their abilities.  They’re not necessarily better actors than those who don’t win.  And they aren’t necessarily great in all of their movies.  But they work hard in every film, and when that one  perfect role came along, they made sure to deliver their best performance.

That’s a lot like how great students approach learning.

Yes, you should work hard in all your classes.  But the best students, the ones who love to learn and who will stand out to colleges are always on the lookout for their chance to shine in a subject.  They do more than just get an “A;” they actually turn the experience into an award-winning opportunity.

If you have a history teacher whose class you can’t wait to attend every day, jump in and deliver an award-winning student performance.  Put your hand up in class. Participate in the discussion.  Tell the teacher how much you’re enjoying the class, and be specific about what you find interesting.  Play the role of an engaged and enthusiastic learner, not just the kid who wants to get an “A.”

If you’re taking a video production class at school and you love it, find a way to deliver an award-winning performance and get really good at video production.  Read how-to guides about it.  Take a class outside of school at a college or community college.  Put what you’ve learned to use by producing great videos of water polo games, or the school musicals, or the graduation ceremony.

If you love Spanish, don’t stop at AP Spanish.  Go to Spain over the summer and come back fluent.  Volunteer as a translator or language tutor for recent immigrants.  Get a part-time job where your Spanish can be put to use.

And don’t do these things just because they’ll help you get into college.  That’s like an actor taking roles he doesn’t want to do just because he thinks they might earn him an award.  That doesn’t work in acting, and it doesn’t work in college admissions.

Award-winning performances come from someone doing what you love and flourishing at something you really enjoy.  That’s why it’s not realistic to be an award-winner in every class.  You’ve got to take the learning to new levels when the role is right.

Yes, it’s good to earn a high GPA.  That’s like an actor who always gets good reviews for his films.  But if you want to stand out to colleges, find the teacher, class and/or subject you enjoy the most and deliver an award-winning performance.