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.

Back to school resolution suggestions for students

A lot of students are heading back to school today, so I'm suggesting 5 back-to-school resolutions to help you have a productive and enjoyable year.

1.  Study better, not more.

Most students who get the best grades actually study less than everyone else.  It's not because they're smarter–they're just better studiers.  So rather than resolve to "get a 4.0" or to "study harder," set a goal to become a better studier.   Here's one post that can get you started, and another to keep you focused.

2.  Stop doing activities that don't make you happy.

Extra-curricular activities should be a welcome part of your day, things that make your high school experience more enjoyable.  If you're doing an activity you hate just because you think colleges will appreciate it (they won't if you hate it, by the way), stop doing it.  If you're going to club meetings every week and feel like all you're doing is meeting, stop going and find something else.  If you dread going to track practice every day because you're broken down and it just isn't fun anymore, find something else to do that doesn't involve mile repeats.  Productive, successful students find and commit themselves to things they really enjoy doing.  They don't plod through life.   

3.  Find–and protect–your free time.

I don't know where so many students and parents got the idea that free time is a bad thing.  No college in the universe wants you to schedule every minute of every day with school and activities.  Successful people find and protect their free time, time when they can think, rest, or enjoy relaxing activities that can recharge them (like playing video games, hiking, or just reading something for pleasure).  If you watch seven hours of TV after school, you've probably got too much free time.  But there's nothing wrong with working hard during your work time, then enjoying free time for relaxing, thinking and having fun.

4.  Get excited about college for the right reasons.

A lot of students work hard so they can "get into a good college."  But they don't seem all that excited about the goal.  I think that's because they're scared the work won't pay off with an acceptance to one of their dream colleges.  The hard work that you're doing will mean more to you if it isn't tied exclusively to an admissions decision from one dream school.  Be excited about the opportunity to attend any college.  Have faith that your hard work will pay off in lots of ways no matter where you go.  And if you need some suggestions, here are 50 reasons to be excited for college that have nothing to do with ranking or prestige.

5.  Be nice to the kids other students aren’t nice to.
Once they get out of high school, most students realize that those kids who made fun of the socially less fortunate were secretly racked with insecurity themselves. So be nice. Say “hi” to the kid nobody else says “hi” to. Don’t join in when everyone else starts to make fun of the easy target. Your teachers and counselors will notice, the kid you’re nice to will appreciate it, and you’ll be in line for karma points later in life.

Giving the gift of undivided attention

How would you feel if you were in the middle of a conversation with someone and he or she pulled out a magazine and started reading it?  You'd probably think it was rude.  You'd probably be insulted.  The person might as well have just said,  "You are excruciatingly boring, so I'm going to do something else now."

But that's pretty much what you're doing when you check a text message on your phone while you're in the middle of a conversation. 

One of the ways the world has changed is that we're constantly
exchanging information.  If you're a teenager, you're getting bombarded
with messages in multiple formats throughout the day.  So you're constantly
having to make a choice.  Which is more important–what you're doing
right now, or stopping what you're doing to read and respond to that message? 

The choice you make in each situation says a lot about you. 

When a student types a text message during one of our
meetings, we let him know that's not OK.  Turn the phone off
until we're done here.  Your college applications are more important
than that text message.  And I think we've got an obligation to teach kids that teachers, professors and bosses interviewing them for jobs someday won't like it either.  We work with mostly good kids, so thankfully, we don't have to say that very often. 

But I'll let you in on a secret–we know who's likely to do it before it ever happens.

The engaged kids who are excited about college and really seem to want our help aren't on their phones during our meetings.  They're too busy talking about colleges, asking questions and making sure they understand their next steps.  But the kid who always looks a little bored, who treats his college process like a chore other people are making him do, that's your likely text-er, right there.   

One of the nice things about the information age is that it's easy to give someone a gift–undivided attention.  If you're talking with someone you like and respect, put the phone away for two minutes.  It's a gift that doesn't cost you anything and you'll get all kinds of subtle credit for doing it. 

The text messages will be there when you get back. I promise. 

What would you do for a million dollars?

Sometimes you say you can't do something because you really can't.  Other times, you're just making excuses.  A good way to tell which one it is is to use the million dollar scenario. 

When we have a student who repeatedly misses or arrives late to meetings but always seems to have an excuse (traffic, too busy, I forgot, etc.), I'll ask,

"What would you do if you knew you'd win a million dollars if you arrived at your next meeting on time?" 

I'm not looking for, "I'd be there on time."  That's too easy.  I mean what specific actions would you take that you're not taking now? 

The student inevitably says something like , "I'd write it down so I wouldn't forget" or "I'd leave earlier to beat traffic."  The million dollar scenario exposes when you're making excuses for things that you really could do if you wanted to.

I'm an equal opportunity user of the scenario; I'll use it to call myself out when I'm just making excuses, too.  People in my life would tell you that I often think I'm busier than I really am.  When I think I'm too busy to get a project done on time, I'll use the million dollar scenario, and it calls me on it.  Every time.  I used it 11 months ago when I thought I was too busy to write a post on this blog every day.  I haven't missed a day since.

I'm not saying you should necessarily always do what the million dollar scenario suggests.  If there were a million dollars riding on you getting a 4.0 this semester, but in order to do it, you'd have quit the jazz band you love and sleep 3-hours a night (probably not true, by the way), that's not improving your life. 

The million dollar scenario shouldn't push you to do things that will make you unhappy; it should push you to get out of your own way and achieve the goals that will make you happy.  It should help you prioritize your responsibilities and make better use of your time.

When it's important, knowing there's a million dollars on the line can really make you focus.  Give it a try and see what happens. 

To get into college, get off Facebook

Cal Newport
says that by working smarter, high school students can develop what he
calls an "under-scheduled life" that will leave you with better grades,
more college acceptances and–here's the best part–all kinds of free
time.  In fact, he says that students who do this right can finish all
their work by dinnertime almost every day and have the rest of the
evening to do pretty much anything.  Here's one of his most important
tips:


NewQuotation

Rule #6: Do not, under any circumstances, do any work anywhere near an internet connection.

Do
not do any work while online.  If you're writing a paper, or working on
math problems, or taking notes on your history textbook, with an
instant messenger window open, there's absolutely no way that you can
realize the ideal student workweek.  The work done in this state is
poor, it is draining, and it takes forever.  If you work while online,
you will end up staying up late, you will end up doing shoddy work, and
you will fail to achieve an underscheduled lifestyle–and therefore lose
all the benefits that it generates…When it comes to productivity,
there's no avoiding this truth: Facebook is the tool of the devil.  If
you want to significantly reduce the time you spend working, then you
absolutely have to keep the internet far, far away until you're
completely done for the day.

Page 68:  How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) 

*Note: Cal also makes it clear that he's not against Facebook or
anything else you might like to do–he's just arguing that you need to
separate your work time from your free time–and that letting them overlap just
ruins both.