A $50,000 scenario for high school students

High school students, imagine this scenario:

You just got word that you have two hours to complete a five-page paper in which you describe your high school experience and dispense advice for incoming high school freshmen.  If you finish it within the allotted time, your essay will be evaluated by a reader.  And if it's good enough, you'll win $50,000. 

Obviously, you'd take the challenge.  But given the stakes, what additional steps would you take to make sure you got it done on time and that the paper was as good as you could make it?

  • Would you tell your family you need to be undisturbed for the next two hours?
  • Would you turn off your phone?
  • Would you close out your email and your IM and your Facebook page?
  • Would you find a different place to go where you were absolutely sure you could work in peace, like the library?
  • Would you concentrate intensely for the entire two hours and set aside everything else until the paper is done?

I bet you would.

So, why not do those things when you study or do your homework?   

A good source for study tips and test-taking advice

I've shared Cal Newport's blog here before but wanted to point something specific out about it.

Make sure you check the sidebar at the right under the heading, "Looking for Help on A Specific Problem?"  There, you'll find his blog posts categorized into subjects like, "Fighting procrastination," "Note-taking," "Organization," "Studying," "Test-taking," and "Time Management."

Some of his material is dense and takes awhile to get through.  But if you apply the tips he gives you, I think you'll find his advice is always helpful. 

How to handle “No”

I once received an email from an editor who'd submitted her resume for a job opening at Collegewise, and she did everything but call me an idiot for deciding not to interview her.  When she demanded to know my reasons, I pointed out the typos in her resume.  She apologized, but when you handle rejection that badly, it's over for the other party.

I've written before about how kids can handle college rejections.  But we all face the risk of hearing "No."  When a student applies for a summer job, he might hear a "No."  When a private counselor is being interviewed by a prospective family, the family might ultimately say, "No" and choose someone else.  Independent high schools and colleges hear "No" all the time from students they accepted who ultimately choose to learn someplace else. 

When you hear "No," you've got a choice to make.  You can voice your disagreement. You can criticize the other party's decision making process.  You can get angry, point out every reason why they're making a mistake, and appeal for reconsideration (which almost never works).

Or you could look at it as an opportunity to leave them singing your praises.

You could sincerely thank them for their consideration and for the time they invested in you.  You could praise their decision and tell them that while you're disappointed, you can certainly understand why they made the choice they did.  You could tell them what you learned during the process and what you're going to do differently as a result of it.  And most importantly, you could let them know that you'll still be around if they ever need you in the future. 

The second approach leaves a much better chance of you getting invited back for a new opportunity (or if the choice they made falls through).  You'll leave a great last impression, one that just might lead to them to recommend you to a friend or colleague who might be a better fit.  And you'll actually feel better.

How you handle a "No" says a lot about you.  And it improves your chances of getting a "Yes" in the future.

How to deal with trolls

I get an email about once a month from the same person to tell me how wrong I am about something I've written here.  He never signs his full name.  He's not asking for an explanation or for any kind of dialog.  He just wants to vent.  I know the anger actually has nothing to do with me.  So I read them, delete them and move on with my day.     

The more you put yourself out there to the world, the more likely you are to run into trolls.  Disagreement by itself isn't necessarily bad and can actually lead to a better understanding for both parties.  But trolls do more than just disagree with you.  They take a perverse pleasure in tearing you and your ideas down.   

Find any popular blog or a video on YouTube, and there are always scathingly critical comments no matter how many people post about how much they love it.

If you want to start a club or suggest a new theme for the homecoming dance or try out for the basketball team, somebody may dismiss it as a bad idea or flat out make fun of you. 

The more a high school counselor or a private counselor interacts with students and parents, the more likely the counselor will run into a few who are pre-disposed to disagree with the advice or to be unhappy with the efforts.

Successful people ignore the trolls.  They know that trolls are always out there and they're almost never creating anything great on their own; that's why trolls have so much time and energy to criticize you. 

You have to ignore the trolls.  If you don't, you'll spend all your time hiding.  You'll be afraid to write a blog or try a new idea or do anything that could open yourself up to criticism. 

Not everyone is going to appreciate you.  But those who do deserve your mental energy and time more than the trolls do.

Frozen yogurt and college admissions

If you're ever in Costa Mesa, CA, check out America's Cup yogurt in the Harbor Shopping Center.  And if Garbriel is working, get ready to be impressed.

Gabriel looks like your typical teenage kid doing a fairly typical teenage kid's part-time job.  But the way he approaches his job is anything but typical.

When you walk in, he smiles big and says, "Hi!"  In fact, he never stops smiling, not when he's wiping the counter, or refilling the toppings or ringing up your order. 

He engages with all of the customers, saying things like, "You want a napkin for the ride home in case you spill a little?" and, "You should start eating yours now–there's no reason you should have to suffer just because your boyfriend is still deciding what flavor he wants."  

He acts like there's just no place else he'd rather be on a Wednesday night at 8:30 than right there at America's Cup.  And I really can't describe what a difference it makes. 

I don't know anything else about this kid other than what he's like at his part-time job.  But I know that kid is going places.  And I don't care what his grades and test scores are.  He's the kind of person this book was written about. 

Enthusiasm is available to anyone and appreciated by everyone.  You don't have to be the smartest, strongest, highest test-scoring, fastest kid to be enthusiastic about what you're doing.  Come to class with a smile on your face.  When you're at soccer practice, bring a great attitude along with your cleats.  If you're cleaning up after the homecoming dance with the rest of the elected officers, be the one who's not grumpy and actually seems happy to be there.

If you bring more enthusiasm, you'll find that:

1) You'll enjoy what you're doing even more. 

2) Other people will enjoy what they're doing even more (enthusiasm is contagious) 

3)  People will always want you around because you make everything more enjoyable.

That's a great trio. 

A better way to give feeedback

A lot of meetings go like this:  Someone proposes an idea.  The group weighs in with feedback during which time certain people can always be counted on to criticize, refute, and give every reason why the idea won't work.  Whether you're a student in the Spanish Club, a counselor at a faculty meeting, or a parent at the monthly gathering of the PTA members, the next time someone proposes a new a fundraiser, a different system for scheduling student meetings, or a new way of recruiting parent volunteers, here are two ways to make your feedback more helpful. 

1. Start by saying something nice. 

When you start your feedback with, "Here's what I really like about your idea," or "Wow, that's creative.  I never would have thought of that," it puts you and the person with the idea on the same side.  It makes it more likely that any of your constructive criticism will actually be taken to heart. 

2.  Ask a question.

The best way to show someone you're really considering the idea is to show them that you really want to understand.  So ask a question.  Not a question that makes the person defend the idea, like, "We've always done the same fundraiser and it's great.  Why do you want to change it?"  Ask, "If we were to try this, what do you think some of the biggest advantages might be?" 

Our editors actually rely on these techniques when we give students essay feedback.  No matter what we think of a student's first draft, when we write our two paragraphs of initial feedback, we always start by pointing out what we like.  When we go through the essay and make comments, we don't just point out what needs to be fixed.  We highlight funny sentences, great word choice and effective images, too.  If a student proposes an essay idea that we worry might not be the best choice, we ask follow-up questions to make sure we really understand the idea.  And if sentences are confusing, we don't just write, "Confusing." We tell the student that we weren't sure what they meant and ask if they can tell us more about what they were trying to say. 

When you give good feedback, people will be more likely to implement your proposals.  Your criticism will be received without insult.  And most importantly, you'll be demonstrating to the entire group that you can be counted on to weigh in thoughtfully and honestly. 

Sometimes it’s best to just accept reality

It's often a waste of time to get upset about things you can't change. 

When your flight is delayed or you're stuck in bad traffic or it's raining on a day you wanted to go to the beach, that's the reality.  Getting upset won't change things for the better (and I admit that I often make that mistake).  The better job you can do of just accepting things you can't change, the better you'll feel and the less negative energy you'll waste. 

There are about 40 colleges in the country where admission is absurdly competitive.  The applicant pools are full of the most accomplished students in the world, and just about all of them get rejected. A lot of those rejected kids were just as qualified and worked just as hard as those who were admitted.  It's neither rational nor fair.  But it's the reality at those schools.  You can complain about it or lament your admissions misfortune, but that's not going to make you feel better.  And it's not going to improve your college outlook at all.  You might as well accept it.

I'm not saying you should abandon your dreams if you think Princeton is the school for you.  You can (and should) work as hard as you can to give yourself as many college options as possible. 

But once you accept the admissions reality you can't change, you can put your mental energy to better use.  You can learn as much as you can in your classes motivated by the fact that knowledge is always a good thing.  You can enjoy your time on the soccer team or in the school play or at your part-time job because you know you're getting something good out of it even if Harvard says, "No."  You won't take any rejections from highly selective colleges personally any more than you could blame yourself for not winning the lottery. 

And maybe you'll even reject the notion that those 40 schools are inherently better than others (they aren't, by the way).  You could take charge of your college process and find some other colleges that fit you well and that would be excited to have you join their class. 

Sometimes acknowledging the reality actually leaves you with a lot more options.

Five things you can start doing tomorrow that will get you better grades

Whether you're an "A" student, a "C" student or someone in between, here are five easy ways to earn higher grades. 
 
1.  When you're in class, pretend there is a state law prohibiting you from studying the material later.
If you knew you'd never be able to study the material later before tests, you'd pay intense attention in class. You'd try to soak up every piece of information and you'd work to commit it to memory.  Pretend that law just went into effect, and watch your study time decrease while your grades increase.  

2.  Put your hand up at least once a day in each class to ask a question or contribute to the discussion.
Participating keeps your mind engaged.  Instead of just passively listening, you're thinking of questions and how to answer those the teacher has asked the class.  You'll remember more of the material.  And your teachers will be impressed by your enthusiasm for learning.

3.  Put yourself on an interruption diet.
When you're studying or doing your homework, eliminate every possible interruption.  Don't check Facebook.  Don't check email.  Don't receive or answer text messages.  Just focus and get your work done.  You'll learn more in half the time you were spending before.

4. Before you study for your next test, review your last test.
Cal Newport, author of "How to Be a High School Superstar," recommends that you do a testing autopsy after every exam, rigorously examining what went right and what went wrong for you.  You can learn a lot about your teachers' testing tendencies by reviewing your past exams.  How much of the reading was actually tested?  What did your teacher seem to care most about?  Testing autopsies help you customize your studying for each class and teacher.  You'll constantly be adjusting your approach, like a NASCAR pit team adjusting the settings on a driver's car at every pit stop (did we stretch too far on that one?).  So before you start studying, do an autopsy.

5.  When studying, pretend you have to teach it to your class tomorrow.
If you can teach it, you know it cold.  So instead of just reviewing your math or chemistry or US history, pretend that you're going to have to stand up in class and teach it tomorrow.  What would you say?  How would you explain it?  You'll understand it and remember it much better.

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.