Leave a big void

My first job out of college was at the local office of a major test prep company.  It was easy to see early on which one of my co-workers was the office MVP.  He was the only one who could do everything that needed to be done in that office, from delivering seminars about any of the tests we taught, to training teachers, to planning marketing campaigns, preparing bulk mailings, and even fixing our networked computers.  When something needed to be done, people would turn to him first to ask how.  He was the opposite of those people who shirk responsibility and say, “That’s not my job.”  When he got a big promotion to run his own office (in Hawaii!), the void he left was immediately noticeable.  I remember thinking that if I could leave a void that big when I (hopefully) got my own big promotion someday, I’d have done something right. 

You don’t have to be the best, smartest or fastest to make yourself a valuable member of a team, club, organization, or part-time job.  Just ask yourself, “What could I do today that would leave a big void when I graduate and move on?”  Make it a daily habit and you’ll be indispensable.

How to overcome procrastination

In their book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath share a great way to overcome procrastination taken from “The 5-Minute Room Rescue,” a technique to overcome chore inertia.  Let’s say you have to clean your house and you’re procrastinating.  Set a timer for five minutes and head straight to the dirtiest room in the house.  When the timer goes off, you can stop and feel good about it.  That doesn’t sound so bad.  So you get to it.

The trick, not surprisingly, is that you won’t stop after five minutes.  As the Heath brothers put it, "Starting an unpleasant task is always worse than continuing it."  Once you see even five minutes of progress, you’ll feel motivated to keep going.  By making the goal smaller (you only have to clean for five minutes), you overcome your inertia and do the single most important thing—start.

The next time you’re facing an important but unpleasant task, from a college essay to a project for your physics class, try the five minute timer trick and just start.

It’s (not) their job

Just because it’s someone’s job doesn’t mean you have to act like it. 

You don’t have to say “please” and “thank you” to a waiter.  They’re going to bring the food no matter what.  But if you’re nice, if you treat him like a person instead of a server, don’t your chances of getting better service increase?

I’ve noticed this over the years working with students.  Every kid at Collegewise gets advice, and we’re nice to all of them.  But for the students who are particularly engaged during their meetings, who sincerely apologize if they miss an appointment, who are appreciative of our help and of their parents’ willingness to hire a counselor, we’re going to be even more invested in their success.  It’s not a policy.  It’s just human nature.

It’s your teacher’s job to help you when you don’t understand.  But doesn’t she still deserve a sincere "thank you" when she stays after school to meet with you?

It’s your counselor’s job to send your transcripts to colleges you apply to.  But doesn’t she deserve to be given plenty of time to send them (and to get her own appreciative "thank you")? 

It might be your parents’ job to drive you to baseball practice, pay for tutors, and make sure you have a hot meal every night, but don’t they deserve to be treated like family instead of employees? 

Treating people like it’s their job makes them want to do just enough not to get fired.  And nobody’s ever raved about that kind of service.

Have you done your course due diligence?

Students at Sarah Lawrence College interview the professors before choosing classes.  It’s the college's way of allowing students to take charge of their education—to make informed decisions about what they learn and who will teach them.

There’s no reason you couldn’t do the same thing in high school.

Sure, you don't have as many course options to choose from as you will in college.  But if you’re nervous about AP Chemistry next year and want to make sure you’re prepared, talk to the AP Chem teacher and get a sense of the class.

If you love English and will be taking a class with your favorite teacher next year, visit her before you take the class and ask for some summer reading recommendations.

And if you struggle in Spanish and want some advice about what material you should review before taking the next level in the coming year, have a chat with your future Spanish teacher.

Be sincere in your interest and respectful of the teacher’s time, and you’ll not only make a more informed decision, but also be demonstrating to the teacher—before you even take the class—that you’re a mature and engaged student.

The benefits of being unreachable

Have you read a text message or an email while you were…

1. …quarterbacking the football team?
2. …playing the flute in the orchestra?
3. …performing a cheerleading routine at halftime?
4. …giving a speech to run for senior class president?
5. …delivering your rebuttal during a debate tournament?

Of course you haven’t.  The risk would be too big.  What you're doing demands your full attention.  And your social status probably suffers no irreparable harm when you’re unreachable during those times.  The texts, emails and the people behind them are always there waiting when you’re done.

What would happen if you added studying and doing homework to your “no texts or emails during this time” list?

Are you as smart as you think you are?

A high school senior started a thread on reddit entitled, “I’m not as smart as I thought I was.”  He writes about getting his first B, being disappointed with his SAT score, and coming under a new impression that he’s not the smartest kid in his class, just not as intelligent as he thought he was.

There are almost a thousand replies.  But one in particular comes from an MIT grad who now interviews applicants for admission:


People fail to graduate from MIT because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they've had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out. The students that are successful look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don't blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in that reply that can be applied before—or after—college.  When something challenges you, acknowledge it.  Accept the fact that you don’t know how to handle it perfectly.  Then start figuring out how to handle it, asking for help when you need it.  That’s where real smarts come from. 

It may seem cliché, but it will be good to keep that advice in mind the next time a challenge shakes your confidence, whether you’re a student struggling with AP chem or a counselor trying to get promoted. 

His entire response is worth a read.  It’s currently the third comment from the top, posted by “Inri137.”

Give Google what you’d want people to find

When someone Googles your name, do you like what they find? 

Whether you're applying to college, trying to get a job, or just wooing someone you hope to date more than once or twice, they’re often going to do their Internet due diligence and learn what they can.  It seems to me, we’ve all got three choices of how we influence the results.

1. You can work to keep things from Google. 

You can try to maintain your online anonymity—no Facebook profile, no uploaded photos, no blog or Twitter account, etc.  The two problems with this are 1) You’ll never be able to control everything, and 2) when you don’t show up online at all, people will wonder what the heck you’ve been doing with your time.  No online presence is almost as weird as a questionable one. 

2. You can let Google have everything, from anyone. 

Tweet your every thought.  Let anyone post embarrassing photos of you on Facebook.  Make all your profiles public.  Once you make that (probably bad) choice, you’d better hope you don’t change your mind.  That privacy will be hard to get back.

3. You can give Google what you want people to find.

The best option is to work to build an online presence you’re proud of and actually want people of consequence to see.

  • Write a blog about your soccer season and post all the photos of your club team’s trip to Europe.
  • Start a personal website where you share your photography, or sell your self-published guide to fixing computers, or show all the before and after photos of the Ford Bronco you restored with your dad.
  • Launch a YouTube channel with videos of you playing piano in the jazz band (and maybe keyboard in your legit 80s cover band, too?).
  • Read 10 books about the Civil War or Italian cooking or how to pitch a softball.  Then write thoughtful, provoking reviews and post them on Amazon. 

It’s not up to you whether or not people decide to Google you.  But you get to make some choices about what they find.

Send a good message by taking notes

Taking notes in class isn’t just good common study sense.  It also demonstrates that you’re bringing some effort of your own to this exchange.  It shows that you’re paying attention and that you care about what your teacher has to say.  That’s a powerful message to send, one that you might not want to reserve just for class time.

When you visit your teacher after class to ask for help, take notes on what you discuss.  Show that you’re doing your part to make the most of this extra time your teacher is giving you. 

If you meet with your counselor to talk about colleges that are a good fit for you, don’t just sit there and nod your head.  Write the names of the colleges down.  Ask a few questions and take notes on the answers.

Private counselors can do this, too.  When we meet with a new family who’s considering joining our program, we ask them if it would be OK if we took some notes during the discussion.  And we always take notes when we meet with our enrolled families, not just because we need to remember the information, but because we want the families to know that we care about what they’re saying. 

When you take notes during an interaction with someone, you’re sending a powerful message.  Don’t do it on a date—that would just be creepy.  But in class, a meeting with your teacher or counselor, even a job interview, send a good message by taking a few notes.

What UPS delivery drivers know about focus

A UPS delivery driver’s day is done as soon as the truck is empty—never before.   That’s why they always seem to be hustling, and you never see their drivers hanging out together on an extended coffee break in the middle of the day.  At UPS, it pays to be focused.  The sooner that last package gets delivered, the sooner it’s quitting time.

The straight-A student who never seems to pull a late night, who claims to have “barely studied for the test” isn’t always smarter than everybody else.  A lot of those kids just do their work like the UPS drivers.  No Facebook, no phone calls, no texts or emailing or YouTubing until the work is done. 

Focused work gets things done a lot faster.       

Help your teacher help you

Good students aren’t afraid to ask their teachers for help.  But if all you ask is, “I’m just not getting this—can you help me?”, that’s like telling your doctor, “I’m not feeling well” and hoping she’ll diagnose you with no other information.  The next time you need to ask your teacher for extra help, here are a few tips for making the time more productive for both of you.

1.    Start by being a good kid.
If you’ve blown off your homework, haven’t been paying attention in class, or just haven’t tried all that hard, don’t expect your teacher to save you two weeks before the final just because you ask for help.  Most teachers will go way out of their way to help a good kid who’s struggling.  So start by being a good kid.  If you haven’t done that and still want to ask for help, be honest about it.  Tell your teacher you know it’s your own fault you’re in this mess, and explain you’d like some help turning yourself around. 

2.    Don’t wait to ask. 
If you didn’t understand your trigonometry homework last night, why wait a week or two (or even worse, until after your next test) to ask for help?  This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away on its own.  And the longer you wait, the deeper the academic hole you’re going to be in, and the more material you’ll need to cover.  Ask for help early and you may find that one 10- to 15-minute chat with your teacher is all you need.

3. Be specific.
You can help your teacher help you by pointing out not just what you’re struggling with, but also what you feel confident about.  It sounds like this,

“Here’s my test from last week.   I got every problem with only one variable right, so I think I’m OK there.  But I just fell apart on every problem with two variables.  Can you show me what I’m doing wrong?”

That’s like process of elimination for your teacher.  It makes it easier for him to identify exactly what to focus on to help you improve. 

4. Make the understanding permanent. 
When you leave the meeting with your teacher, the material you just got help with is fresh in your mind.  But you still have to make that understanding permanent.  So after the meeting, go back over your last homework assignment or test and redo what you got wrong.  If you really want to make sure you’ve mastered it, pretend you have to teach it back to your class the next day.  Then stand up in your room and actually teach it (don’t laugh—it works).  That will make your newfound understanding permanent.  

5. Thank your teacher the right way.
You might think that your teacher has nothing better to do during lunch or after school than help you, but the truth is that when teachers do this, they’re doing you a favor (it’s a favor they should do for students, but it’s still a favor).  So here’s how to thank them the right way.  First, tell them how much you appreciate their help.  Then, a day or so later, just stop by and tell your teacher how you made that understanding permanent.

“Thanks so much for helping me yesterday.  I went back through my test last night and redid all of the multi variable problems, and I got all of them right.  I really appreciate your help.”

Now your teacher knows you did your part to make the extra help worthwhile.  And everybody likes to be appreciated when they do a favor for someone.