Is it true that, “It never hurts to ask”?

"It never hurts to ask."  I'm not so sure that's true. 

I think whether or not it hurts to ask depends on the question, and even more importantly, it depends on the way you ask.

Imagine
you approach your teacher ten days before college application deadlines
and blurt out, "Can you write me a letter of recommendation for
college?"  What are the chances that your teacher is going to feel good
about that question?  You're obviously not very organized.  You're
making your teacher pay for your disorganization by asking so late, and
you don't seem to feel badly about it at all.  What if you've also
never seemed too interested in the subject matter and you spent a lot
of time yawning in her class?  What if this is the first time you've
ever tried to have a conversation with this teacher?  Doesn't it hurt
to ask now?

What would have made that question a better one?

You
could have spent the duration of the course earning the right to ask. 
You could have been an engaged student who didn't just work hard, but
also seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter.  You could have
said, "Hi" to that teacher in the hallway.  You could have given a lot
of thought as to why your work in this teacher's class is worthy of a
recommendation.  You could have respected the teacher's time by
approaching her earlier, and by asking if it would be OK to schedule an
appointment at a time that would be convenient for her to discuss your
college applications. 

And instead of blurting out the
question, you could have had a real conversation with the teacher about
your work in the class, what you hope to study in college, and why you
were hoping she could share your story with the colleges in a
recommendation.   

It takes a lot of work to earn the right to
ask, to invest the time and energy to build a connection like that. 
But whether you're asking for a favor, a raise, some assistance, an
opportunity, or some advice, putting the work in ahead of time makes it
a mutually beneficial exchange.

It never hurts to ask right

How to not take “no” for an answer

I was at the video store over the weekend and overheard a teenager inquiring about a job.  Here's how the conversation went.

Teenager (to sales clerk):  "Hi, can you tell me how old you have to be to work here?"

Sales clerk:  "Yeah, you have to be eighteen."

Teenager:  "Oh, OK.  Do you know if they ever make exceptions?"

Sales clerk: "I don't know.  But I can get my manager and you can ask him if you want."

Teenager:  "That would be great.  Thanks."

I don't know what happened after that.  But whether or not he gets the job, that teenager is doing a lot right.  He's showing initiative.  He's out there looking for a regular job, not working at his dad's law office.  He's courteous and cheerful.  And when he didn't get the answer he wanted, he didn't get upset about it, but he didn't just shrug his shoulders in defeat, either.  He's not taking "no" for an answer, but he's not being disrespectful.  He just really wants that job and is willing to do just a little more to show it than your average job seeker would. 

I hope the manager hired him.  Those are the kinds of characteristics colleges appreciate, too.

Five nice things high school kids can do for their parents

It's hard for teachers, counselors and colleges not to like a kid who's nice to his parents.  And it's impossible for a parent not to be moved by their own kid's thoughtful gesture.  If you're looking for ways to be an even better son or daughter, here are a few simple things that every parent I've ever met would appreciate, things that have nothing to do with grades, test scores or colleges.

1.  Thank them.

Say "thank you" to your parents more often.  Not just for the big stuff, like putting a roof over your head or paying for college (though your parents certainly deserve thanks if they do those things).  But also for the little stuff, like fixing your dinner, doing your laundry, coming to all your soccer games, helping you with your math homework, giving you advice, etc.  Even if it's a good parent's job to do some or all of these things, that doesn't mean they don't deserve thanks.

2.  Every now and then, spend five minutes answering the question, "How was your day?"

Almost every student answers that question with one word–"Fine" or "Good."  Switch it up every now and then.  Actually tell your parents what happened during the day that made you happy, or encouraged you, or frustrated you, or worried you.  They'll appreciate that you're sharing bits and pieces of your life with them.

3. Let them know if they were right about something.

If your parents gave you advice, or predicted something that would be good for you, or even if you were arguing about an issue that you can now see from their perspective, admit it.  Say, "You know what, Mom, you were right about ____."  Your parents will enjoy hearing it and they'll appreciate that you're mature enough to say it. 

4.  Pitch in.

Parents do a lot for kids.  Every now and then, offer to lend a hand and help even if your parents don't ask you to.  Offer to help wash the dishes or take the trash out or walk the dog.  Or offer to do something on your own that they normally do for you.  They'll appreciate your efforts to ease their workload just a bit.

5.  Give them a break.

It's not easy being a teenager today, but it's not easy being the parent of a teenager, either.  The next time you feel yourself getting frustrated or annoyed with your parents, take a deep breath and try to put yourself in their shoes for a second.  Be nice and try to be understanding.  Don't vent your frustration at them. 

If you did all five of these things, how would it make your parents feel?  Isn't it worth it?

  

The power of enthusiasm

Have you ever been to a store where the workers seem genuinely happy to be there (Trader Joe's and In-n-Out Burger come to mind)?  Those employees make your customer experience that much better.  

Have you ever taken a class where the teacher obviously loves the subject?  Her passion makes the material that much more interesting and usually makes you enjoy the class. 

Ever listened to somebody talk about why they love the Red Sox or the opera or taking baths instead of showers?  It's hard not to be a little intrigued when you hear their passion. 

Enthusiasm is contagious (I mean genuine enthusiasm, not contrived enthusiasm that you're manufacturing because you think it will help you get into college). 

Enthusiasm is also free.  You don't have to pay for an expensive tutor to teach you to be more enthusiastic.  Enthusiasm is available to anyone regardless of your GPA or test scores.  And colleges are just as likely to contract your contagious enthusiasm as anyone else is.   

If you have a favorite teacher or class, let your enthusiasm show.  Smile when you walk into class.  Raise your hand.  Ask questions.  Throw yourself
into it by doing extra reading or taking a more advanced course in the
subject during the summer. 

Don't join a club or play a sport or volunteer
at a hospital if you're just doing it to get into college.  Find a
club you're excited about.  Play the sport you love.   Volunteer
someplace where you really believe in the mission of the organization.

Students who approach the college process the right way are usually enthusiastic because it's easy for them to enjoy the ride.  They're working hard but they're not limiting their college choices to the schools that reject almost everyone who applies.  They picking activities based on what they like to do rather than on what they think colleges will appreciate.  They're excited about the opportunity to be a college student regardless of whether or not the college is famous.

If you want to enjoy your college process (and get in to more colleges), add a little enthusiasm to your life.

The problem with pleasing everyone

I’ve met countless high school kids with impressive resumes who couldn’t answer a simple question about which activity meant the most to them. Those kids haven’t spent any time considering what would make them happy.  They just spread themselves through a variety of activities and achievements based on what they thought would please other people (and colleges). 

I think those kids are spending far too much time trying to please everyone (especially adults) and not enough time figuring out who they are. 

A lot of high school kids have been taught that if you follow some simple rules, you’ll be successful.  So you study hard.  You have perfect attendance.  You involve yourself in a variety of activities.  You have a good resume.  You don’t say anything that might embarrass you.  You don’t ask questions that might make you look foolish.  You learn what you’re supposed to learn, study for the test, and then move on to the next subjects.  If you do these things, you’ll please everyone, you’ll get into college and you’ll be successful.  Those are the rules.

But here’s the catch.  Trying to please everyone is no way to stand out.  If you don’t believe me, just look at some of the most successful people.

From social revolutionaries like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, to business tycoons like Mark Cuban and Richard Branson, to industrial and technological innovators like Henry Ford and the Google Guysthey had a vision of what they wanted to accomplish, and they relentlessly pursued that vision.  If they had spent all their time trying to please those in charge, they probably never would have gotten as far as they did.  I’m not suggesting they went out of their way to defy authority (though some had to).  But pleasing everyone  was never the end goal.  They were motivated by their own passions, by a sense of purpose that was bigger than themselves. 

How much time do you spend just trying to please people? Are you taking classes you hate just so you can get into what you think is a good college Are you playing the piano because your parents want you to?  Are you going to pitching clinics because your coach told you to, or taking vocal classes because your drama teacher said you need them?  Are you doing them because those things make you happy, or are you doing them because other people told you to do them?

Please understand, I’m not advocating that you should brazenly defy authority and just do whatever you want to do.  Your parents, teachers and
coaches deserve your respect, and you’d be burning bridges with people who could really help you achieve your goals.

But I am saying that great leaders, inventors, communicators, organizers, people who make things happen for themselves and those around them, they got that way by identifying and pursuing their own passions.

If you’re a good kid who takes AP classes, gets straight A’s, has high SAT scores, plays the piano, does community service, and is involved in clubs, that’s great.  You’re obviously smart and capable of working hard.  You should be proud of that.

But if you can’t answer a question about your favorite subject, or your favorite activity, or what you do for fun, or what part of college you’re most excited about (these are all things that colleges will ask you, by the way), then you’re a good kid who did all those things because the rules told you to do them.  That doesn’t make you a bad kid.  But lots of kids follow the rules.  If you’re trying to stand out and show your potential to colleges, there are better ways to do it.

The good news is that colleges are on kids’ sides here.  Every admissions officer I’ve ever met steadfastly maintains that a kid who loves what he’s doing, whatever the activity may be, is more appealing than a student with a long list of accomplishments he garnered in an attempt to impress colleges.  Colleges know it’s the passionate kid who’s going to keep doing great things once he gets to college.

So that’s the trade-off.  You can try to please everyone, inevitably sacrifice some of your own happiness and be like every other good kid.  Or you can decide for yourself who you are and what makes you happy, and you can spend your time fulfilling your own goals.

You won’t please everyone, but you’ll please the most important people (people who love you, people who understand you, and colleges that fit you).  And more importantly, you’ll be happy.

It’s your choice.

What have you done for them lately?

To apply and get accepted to college today, you'll need people to help you.

You'll need your counselor to answer your questions, to send your transcripts and maybe even to write you a letter of reference.

You'll need teachers who will write letters of recommendation on your behalf.

You might need your basketball coach, your ballet teacher, or your vocal instructor to share positive reviews with the appropriate people on campus.

You'll need your parents to support you both figuratively and (likely) financially. 

So, (long) before you go asking these people for their help, ask yourself, "What have I done for them lately?"

What have you done to make your US History class even better for your teacher?  What have you done to show your counselor that you appreciate her advice?  What have you done to be the kind of player every coach wants on his or her team?  What have you done to show your parents that you appreciate everything they've done and will continue to do for you?

I'm not suggesting that should bribe these people or do anything insincere.  I'm saying that whenever you ask someone to do something for you, the person naturally wants to feel like you've earned the right to have that favor done.  If you've gone out of your way to earn the right, they'll be even more inclined to work hard to help you. 

Are you earning that right?  If not, what could you be doing differently?  

You earn it in different ways depending on the person from whom you need the help.  But you still need to earn it.

Are you the next Bill Gates?

Bill_gates_03In high school, Bill Gates was a kid who was absolutely fascinated with computers.  He got himself excused from his math classes so that he could learn more about programming.  He would sneak out of the house at night to use a computer on the University of Washington's campus (the college kids were using it during the day).  His high school hired him to write computer code to schedule students into classes.  So Gates did–and made sure the software would automatically place him in classes with a higher ratio of females to males.  He wrote a program in high school that would count traffic, and sold it to the city for several thousand dollars. 

According to the book Outliers, Gates estimated he spent about 10,000 hours learning and exploring computer programming during his youth.  He loved it, and was totally obsessed with it. 

I didn't go to high school with the man, but I am certain that Bill Gates never once concerned himself with whether or not his passion for computers would get him into a "good" college.  He didn't ask if it would "look good" on his applications.  He didn't worry if he should be getting more leadership positions or joining more clubs or doing something else that highly-selective colleges were "looking for."  He just found something he loved, devoted himself to it, mastered it, and used his knowledge to impact his school and his city. 

The results speak for themselves…

1. After high school, Bill Gates went to Harvard.

2. Today, he is the founder of Microsoft and has a net worth of approximately 56 billion dollars.

You can't fake passion.  And that's why colleges look for it.  They don't want someone who chose activities based on what he thought would be impressive.  They want the next Bill Gates (though they would likely prefer that you not drop out of college, which Gates did to found Microsoft in 1975).

   

Are you indispensable?

I just finished reading an interesting book called "Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?"  It wasn't written for high school students trying to get into college; but if you took its lessons and applied them to your high school life, I think you'd find yourself happier, more fulfilled, and more appealing to colleges. 

Here's the gist of the book:  If you want to have a successful career that you enjoy, it's not enough to just work hard, follow instructions, do what your boss tells you to do, and avoid mistakes.  That's fine if you do that, but it won't make you indispensable.  A boss can find lots and lots of other people who will follow instructions and do good–but not indispensable–work. 

Indispensable could mean being the best sales person who makes millions for a company.  But it can also be the grocery checker who's so warm and enthusiastic that customers love her and specifically come to that store because of her. It could be the waitress at the coffee shop who remembers customers' names and their favorite drinks and makes a great impression on everyone.  It's anyone who loves her work, puts her whole self into it, and in the process delights customers and co-workers.  It's these people who are getting and keeping the best jobs today because they're indispensable.  They can't easily be replaced.

Being indispensable isn't all about talent.  It's about attitude, investment, and energy that you bring to your job. You don't have to be the CEO of a company to do that, and you don't have to be the club president, the editor of the school newspaper, or the captain of the football team to do it in high school.

If you're on the student government and end up with the job of collecting tickets at the door for the homecoming dance, you can do that one of two ways.  You can show up on time, sit where you're supposed to sit, collect the tickets, not make any mistakes, and leave when it's over. 

Or you could show up a little early to help set up.  You could suggest that the table be moved to a different spot, because you can see that its current location will make it difficult for people to make an orderly line once the big crowd shoes up.  You could smile and enthusiastically greet people when they arrive.  You could tell people how great they look (and be especially complimentary to those kids who don't hear that kind of praise very often).  At your break, you could offer to go get some water and snacks for everyone working the table with you.  You could figure out ways to keep being valuable once most of the students have shown up, like picking up the tickets that students have dropped on the ground, checking in with the chaperones to see if they need anything, and offering to run out for more ice when you see it's running low.  And when the dance is over, you could be one of the last to leave, staying to help clean up and offering to help carry the tables back the cafeteria where they came from.

Which of those two approaches makes you more indispensable to the student government?  Which makes a bigger impression on the people around you?  And most importantly, which makes you feel better about yourself when you go home that night? 

Taking tickets is not a highly-visible job.  It's not something you'll list on your college applications.  It's not going to win you any awards.  There are few reasons to do it if you expect a tangible and immediate reward in return.   

But you have a choice about how to approach your role for that one night.  You can phone-it-in, do what you're supposed to do, and not make any mistakes.  Or you can use it as an opportunity to actually do a great performance, to bring your whole self to the role, to lead by example and show people that you're the kind of person who brings a lot to any job you do, whether or not it's important and visible. 

It's this kid, not necessarily the ones who have the most impressive titles, who's going places.

When I've written about kids who are active and engaged in class, those are the kids that teachers find indispensable. 

When I've written about kids who bring a positive attitude and work ethic even if they're not the best player on the soccer team, those are the kids that coaches find indispensable. 

When I've written about the kid who does community service not to chalk up hours but because she cares deeply about the mission of the organization, or the kid who doesn't get the lead in the school play but volunteers to run the lights, or the water polo player who leads the team's fundraising drive, or the kid who doesn't hold an office in the Spanish club but makes authentic tamales everyone loves for the meetings, or the kid who does scientific research with a college professor because he just has to know more about physics, those are the kids that are indispensable.

So, are you indispensable?  If you're not, what could you start doing today to become that way?

No fear of failure

I write and talk a lot about the importance of celebrating your strengths as opposed to spending all your time trying to fix your weaknesses.  But here's a secret about smart, confident, successful people–they actually fail a lot.  

Those people don't like to fail, but they understand that the more often you challenge yourself, the more often you're going to fail.  And they're not afraid of it.  They know that you can't have a big success without some failures along the way.  And the most likeable of them aren't afraid to talk about their failures. They'll share those stories openly and maybe even laugh at themselves when the failure was embarrassing.

When you can laugh about a failure, a weakness, or something that was outright embarrassing, it's endearing.  It shows confidence and how comfortable you are just being yourself.  People love hanging out with others who are like that.  And colleges love those people in their classes and dorms.

Those who can laugh at themselves would have no trouble completing the following statements.  In fact, they'd probably enjoy it.

1.  I am quite possibly the world's worst__________.

2.  The most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me is ___________.

3.  It bothers me that I don't seem to be very good at ___________.

4.  I think my greatest weakness is____________.

5.  An example of a time I failed (and I mean really failed) was ___________.

Try it.  Complete the blanks and have a laugh. 

I'm not saying you should resign yourself to failure and give up.  I'm saying that the only people who never fail are the ones who always take the easy way.  Take the harder way and have a laugh when it doesn't go so well.

There's a reason why college applications and interviewers ask questions like these (#5 shows up on lots of college applications).  They want the people who are confident enough to risk failure and still hold their heads high when it happens to them.

On the art of the complaint…

Seth Godin posted an interesting take yesterday about how to voice a complaint. It's a good technique with lots of applications for students and parents going through the college planning years. 

The message here is not to complain more often.  I think the college admissions process needs less complaining, not more.  

But sometimes you do have a legitimate complaint.  Maybe your counselor didn't send your transcripts or the college never told you that they hadn't received your test scores?  Maybe your SAT scores didn't go up after the prep class, or you feel like you're not getting a fair chance to be the starting catcher on the baseball team?  Whatever the complaint, why not approach it in a way that invites respect and collaboration. 

You have a better chance of getting someone to try to be helpful.  And you'll be putting yourself and the person to whom you're complaining on the same team.