20 things I wish I’d known back in high school

I'd like to think we all get a little wiser every year.  At 18, I looked back on myself at 16 and couldn't believe how little I knew.  I'm sure I'll feel the same way two years from now about how little I know today at age 39. 

Still, if I knew back in high school what I know today, man, I really
could have owned that place (or at least have enjoyed a smoother, less stressful four years).  So here are 20 things I wish my 39-year-old self could have told my high school self back in the late 80's.  Some are college related, some or not.  Maybe a high school reader can benefit from one (the rest, feel free to discard as the ramblings of a college counselor who went to high school before email and cell phones were in use).

1.  Give your parents a break.  Recognize that parenting a teenager is stressful and difficult.  There's no manual issued when you take responsibility for a child.  You won't do everything right either when you have kids of your own.

2. Get a job in high school.  I'm glad I did this one, but I probably would have appreciated it more at the time knowing what I know now.  I learned a lot working at that limousine company.

3. Guys, when you pick a girl up for a date, the first thing you should do is notice how nice she looks.  The second thing you should do is compliment her–out loud–on how nice she looks.  Seriously, do this one.

4. Appreciate what other kids are committed to, even if their activities are different from yours.  You don't have to participate in the school musical to appreciate the kid who spends his time doing that while you're on the football field.  You can ask him how the opening night went.  And if you actually went to watch the musical to cheer them on, imagine how appreciative those kids would be.  Wish I’d done that one.

5. Ask for help when you need it.  A lot of the highest achieving students get there in part by asking for help when they don't understand the material.  If I'd known that, I would have been asking for help a lot.

6. Don't eat out with a group of people unless you're willing and able to pay for more than your fair share.  Everybody gets frustrated with the guy who you have to choke to get him to chip in enough money.   

7. Anyone who says terrible things to you about people they supposedly care about is not to be trusted.  They're doing the same thing to you when you're not around.  Run away.

8. If you especially enjoy a class, tell the teacher.  Write him or her an email, or just mention it after class.  My mom was a high school teacher for 30 years and keeps a shoebox of notes she received from students.  I can see how much it means to her to pull them out and read them today.

9. Be excited about the opportunity to go to college.  While you're at it, be thankful for it.  There are a lot of students in the world who would give anything to be able to attend college.  If your biggest concern is whether or not you get to go to a school that makes the top ten on the US News list, you've got a pretty good life. 

10. Try to learn as much as you can about the things that interest you.  I don’t care what it is.  People–and colleges–love a kid who feeds her mind.

11. Be nice to the kid that nobody else is nice to.  Two years after my graduation, that kid everyone made fun of was killed in a plane crash.  A lot of other people have to live with the fact that they went out of their way to make his high school years as unhappy as possible.  I got this one right in high school and am especially thankful I did.

12. It's hard to overstate the value of working hard and being nice to people.

13. If you obsessively pay attention in class, you’ll cut your study time dramatically and get better grades with half the effort.  Really wish I’d figured that out earlier than, well, now.

14. Try not to worry too much about the bullsh*t that goes on in high school. Who's popular and who's not, who gets invited to the right party and who gets left home, who looks right (or wrong), and all the backbiting and that is so rampant in high school–nobody will care about any of it once you get to college.  Until then, just try to stay out of it as much as you can.  Don't participate in or contribute to it.

15. Don’t waste your worry on things that don't matter.  It's not for me to say what you should or shouldn't worry about, but it’s a big world with plenty of other people and causes that deserve your worry.  I could have been a lot better about this in high school.  

16. A good standardized test-taker eliminates wrong answers and guesses.  A great standardized test-taker does that without feeling any less confident on the next question. Eliminate, guess, move on and feel good about it.  That's the difference between high scores and average scores. 

17. Remember that eventually there will be no such thing as summer vacation.  So take advantage of summers.  I mean really take advantage of them.  I've even got suggestions if you need them.

18. Don't put a senior quote in the yearbook that will make you look stupid when you read it 20 years later.  I didn’t make this mistake, but if I knew the lesson, I could have saved some friends some embarrassment.  One wrote, “I’ll love you FOREVER _____!”  and they broke up two months later.  Ooof. 

19. There’s honor in driving the worst car at school.  We once had a kid at Collegewise who drove the most beat up Volvo station wagon I’ve ever seen.  He had a bumper sticker that said, “Respect the wagon.”  That kid had style.   

20. Remember that you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.  You can endure almost any teen setback, angst or humiliation if you remember that.

No excuses

I worked with a student who once lamented to me that the police in his neighborhood were so "bored" that they'd given him three speeding tickets in one month. 

What?  You're blaming the police?

Then his parents told me, "Can you believe how unlucky he is?  To get three speeding tickets in one month!"

Again…what???

One of the most important skills a person can have is the ability to admit fault.  Take responsibility.  Own up to your mistakes and apologize if you've hurt anybody.

It's so easy to do, and it will go so far towards making you more likeable, responsible, and trustworthy.

Excuses rarely make someone like and respect you more.  And it's not likely to work on colleges, either. 

Can you teach it back?

The best way to learn something is to get to a point where you could teach it to someone else.

When the University of California first announced their new eligibility requirements, I was asked to explain them to a group of students and parents at a local high school.  I'd already read all the material and was comfortable that I understood the changes.  But getting ready to teach other people about it meant I needed to decide what information deserved the most attention, figure out how to best explain it, and try to anticipate what questions families might have.  I understood it all much better as a result of that process.

Preparing to teach something is a great example of active learning.  You can't just passively review the material.  You've got to be actively engaged, testing yourself as you go along to make sure you're ready to explain it to someone else. 

The next time you're studying for a test, imagine you had to go in the next day and teach the material to your class.  How would you explain it?  What would focus on?  What parts might generate a lot of questions from your classmates, and how would you answer them?  In fact, what If you did that every night as you did your homework?  If you pretended every night that you were going to have to go in and teach the material the next day, how much better would you understand it? 

And how much time would you really need to spend studying for your next test?

If you're prepared to teach it, you'll be prepared to take a test on it.

How to write a thank-you note

There are two ways to write a thank-you note.  One is to get it over with, to say the basics, keep it short, and send a quick email (capitalization optional).  Those notes sound like this.

Dear Mr. Gerard:

Thank you very much for writing my letters of recommendation for
college.  I know that you were very busy at the time and I appreciated
your help. I hope you have a good summer, and thank you again for your assistance.

Sincerely,

Rebeca Callahan

Sending a thank-you note like that means you've accomplished one
thing–you've made sure nobody can accuse you of not sending a
thank-you note. 

Don't get me wrong.  Sending any kind of thank-you note is better
than sending nothing at all.  But if someone deserves to be thanked, don't they deserve to be thanked well? 

Put some effort into your thank-you note.  Show the person that you recognize the fact they did a favor for you, that you sincerely appreciate the effort made on your behalf.  Write it on stationary (not over email).  Use capitals and punctuation (seriously, use capitals and punctuation). 

There's no formula for what to say; the key is to just be sincere and take the time to give a proper thanks.

It makes a difference. 

Dear Mr. Gerard:

Now that the college admissions process is officially over, I wanted to thank you again for taking the time to write my letters of recommendation.  I can only imagine how many letters you must have written for students this fall (I know that most of my friends
planned on asking you to write their letters, too), but I really do appreciate the time and effort that you took for me.

I also wanted to tell you that I've decided on Hamilton College and I'm planning to major in history.  I'm not sure I ever would have considered studying history in college if I hadn't taken your class, but after I did that oral report on the Hamilton-Burr duel in front of the entire class without passing out, I'm sure I'm ready for whatever college history throws my way.

You're a good teacher, Mr. Gerard, and I always looked forward to going to your class every day.  My younger sister, Jenna, is a freshman this year, and I've told her to do whatever it takes to get into your class.  She's a much better public speaker than I am, by the way, so she won't be prone to fainting when it's time to do oral reports.

I'm so excited to go to college, and I'm sure I would not have had as many options as I did were it not for your help.  Thank you again for everything you've done for me, and have a wonderful summer.

All my best,

Rebecca Callahan

Hamilton College, Class of 2014

How to handle college rejections

This is the month when the majority of college decisions arrive home.  And while there will be a lot of happy squealing and celebrating by the mailbox, it can also be a disheartening time for students when a college for whom they were holding out hope doesn’t come through with an offer of admission.

I don’t want to minimize that disappointment.  Many kids today (I believe unfortunately so) predicate their hard work on goals to be admitted to particular, often very selective, colleges. For those kids, it’s an especially painful sting when those colleges say, “No.”

But like break-ups, bad hair cuts, and embarrassing moments, the pain associated with the rejection will eventually pass.  Here are a few tips to speed up the healing process a little.

1. Maintain your perspective.

You are allowed be disappointed by a rejection.  But (warning, a little tough love coming here), you are not allowed to treat the rejection like a tragedy.  This isn’t a tragedy; it’s a disappointment, and all successful people have their share of them.  It’s important to remember how lucky you are to be living in a country with the best system of higher education in the world.  Wherever you go, you will carve out a college experience that you’ll one day tell your kids about.  It’s still going to happen, and that’s something worth appreciating.

You should also know that while not everybody gets into their first choice colleges, statistics show that the vast majority of college students report that they are very happy where they are.  Seriously, can you blame them?  Have you ever been to a college party?

That statistic is a good thing.  It means that thousands and thousands of students who were right where you are today, students who felt the sting of a rejection from a college they loved, are reveling in their college lives now.  It will happen for you, too.

2. Try not to take the rejection personally.

College rejections often feel bitterly personal.  But a rejection does not necessarily mean that the admissions office didn’t love your essay or appreciate your activities or think you wouldn’t be a great addition to the campus.  A rejection often just means that there weren’t enough spaces to go around.  So don’t think that a rejection invalidates all of the work you’ve done.  It just means that you’ll be taking that work ethic with you to a different college.

3.  Move on.

Not getting into a college you loved is a little like going through a break-up.  Break-ups can be rough.  It’s almost impossible to imagine feeling the same way again about someone else.  But you always do eventually (have you ever met a 20 or 30 or 50 year-old who’s still devastated over a high school breakup?).  You just have to put yourself out there and find someone else.

A college rejection is a lot like that.  It hurts, but you’ll get over it faster if you let yourself move on. If you’ve been accepted to other colleges, you already have your suitors awaiting you.  It’s like getting dumped at noon and having six voicemails by 2 p.m. from desirable people who want to date you.  If only romance worked that way.

You won’t remember this rejection in a few months once you move into a dorm.  So you’re allowed a brief period of college-rejection mourning if necessary.  But as quickly as you can, move on.  Start to imagine yourself at one of the other
colleges.  The sooner you begin falling in love with a college that said, “Yes,” the sooner you’ll be excited about the next four years. And speaking of that…

4. Look six months down the road.  

One of the best ways to get over a college rejection is to look ahead six months from now.  This September, you will be moving into a dorm.  You’ll be meeting your new roommate while your parents exact a promise that you’ll call home on a regular basis.  You’ll be buying a sweatshirt bearing the name of your new college. You’ll go to your first college class, start making your initial college friends, and officially begin your life as a college freshman.  Do you have any idea just how exciting that’s going to be for you?

Six months from now, the college rejection that stings today will be a distant memory.  That’s why rejections don’t dash college dreams in the long run.  Once a student commits to a college who said “Yes,” the rejections and their associated pain will disappear.  I promise.

5.  And here’s a tip for the parents.

The most important advice I can give a parent whose son or daughter receives a disappointing rejection is to remember that your kids are looking to you to set the example of how to handle it.  I recognize that this is a lot of pressure on a parent, especially given that you can’t help but share the same disappointment your kids feel.  But as adults, we’ve had more experience handling life’s disappointments. Kids are relatively new to this and will inevitably follow a parent’s lead.

Tell your son or daughter your love and pride doesn’t change because a college said “No.”  Be excited about the schools who said, “Yes.”  And most importantly, show your kids what it means to just be thankful for health and family and the chance to attend a college at all. Your kids will follow your lead.

What happens next?

A Collegewise father once called me and told me,

"Kevin, you won't believe this.  Lauren (his daughter) just called me and said, 'Dad, I'm graduating from college in two months.  So, what happens next?'"

He had a reply that would have made my own father proud.

"I told her, 'What happens next?  I'll tell you.  You go to work every day like ME!"

Students, wherever you end up in college, enjoy it.  Wring as much learning and fun from your time as you can.  You have a lot to look forward to in your life after college, but the experiences you have while you're there are likely a one shot deal.  So make the most of that time before you have to figure out what happens next.

Treat rejections like break-ups

When someone breaks up with you, you have two options.

1.  You can enter an extended period of mourning.  You can blame yourself and say you weren't pretty enough or smart enough or fun enough.  You can wallow, shun other potential dates, and remain convinced that you'll never find love again.

2.  Or you can mourn–briefly–and move on, assured that there are plenty of good matches out there for you who will appreciate you for you who are. 

The second option is far, far better than the first.

A college rejection should be treated like a break-up except for one crucial difference; break-ups are personal, college decisions are not.  They might feel that way, but the fact that you were rejected does not necessarily mean that the admissions office didn't love your essay or appreciate your activities or think you wouldn't be a great addition to the campus.  Sometimes is just means that there weren't enough spaces to go around. 

Post-rejection dejection is normal.  But wallowing in a college rejection, telling yourself that you might have gotten in if your test scores were higher or if you took another AP class or if your essay were just a little stronger, that's like beating yourself up after a break-up.  It will only make you feel worse and delay your opportunity to find a better match.  

The best thing you can do is accept the rejection and move on to one of the colleges who was smart enough and lucky enough to offer you a spot.      

Your best academic experience?

The best academic experience I ever had was my eighth grade science class.  It was better than any class I ever took in high school or college, and it was almost entirely due to the teacher, Mr. Schmidt.  I'd never been a science guy, but I loved that he could make everything from introductory physics to aeronautics fascinating.  I loved how he treated us like we were smart unless we made the mistake of proving otherwise.  And I loved that on the very first day, when the resident class clown, Matthew Hurley, made one of his dopey comments, Mr. Schmidt told him, "You pick your ass up out of that chair and get out of my class.  Now." 

I never worked harder to succeed or to earn a teacher's approval then I did that year.  I looked forward to third period science every single day.  On the last day of class, I actually felt a little choked up when I walked out and said to him, "Keep teaching like you are, Mr. Schmidt."

I never had another class like Mr. Schmidt's.  And that's my fault.  I could have had them, but I never sought out teachers or classes whose reputations sounded like they might duplicate that experience for me.  I just assumed that how much you like a class or a teacher is all about the luck of the draw.  What a mistake. 

What has your best academic experience been, the one class that you actually looked forward to attending every single day.  What made it so great?  Was it because of the subject matter?  Because the teacher was so great?  Because you fed off the sense of competition, or the class discussion, or the opportunity to be pushed to work harder than you thought you could? 

Maybe it was a combination of all of those things.  But whatever it was, I encourage you to think about it, identify what made it special, and then make it your personal academic mission to duplicate it as many times as possible throughout high school and college.

It may not feel like it now, but you're in charge of your academic experience.  You can pursue subjects that interest you.  You can seek out teachers with great reputations.  You'll get to choose your college and your classes and your major.  When you do, think about your best academic experiences and whether or not these choices will create more of them. 

Why not try to create academic experiences that you look forward to every day, every semester, and every year? 

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.

What could your teachers say about you?

If every one of your teachers had to write a letter today to your future colleges telling them about you, what could they say?

  • Would they be able to say that you make contributions to class discussions?
  • Would they be able to say that you are nice and respectful to them and to the other students?
  • Would they be able to say that you seem to care as much or more about learning the material as you do in earning a good grade?
  • Would they be able to say that you ask intelligent questions?
  • Would they be able to say that you bring enthusiasm and cheer to the class, even if you're not the best student in the room?
  • Would they be able to say that they'd like ten more students just like you in the class?
  • Would they be able to say that you seem excited and well-suited for college?

What would you have to do to get all of your teachers to say these things about you?  What do you think would happen if you did it?