An easy way to get an advantage

1.    Show up on time. 
2.    Arrive with a smile on your face.

College interviews, job interviews, meetings with your counselor to discuss your classes for next year, dates, volleyball practice, auditions for the school play—it works everywhere.  It positively influences everything that happens next.  It’s free.  It’s easy.  It’s available to students with any GPA or test score. 

And yet even some of the world’s smartest people just won't do it.

Complaining won’t change the story

It’s hard to like a student who’s a complainer.  When things didn't go their way in high school, the most successful college applicants didn't complain.  Instead, they took those moments as opportunities to change the story. 

If you didn’t get into AP US History, don’t complain about it or send your parents in to fight with your counselor. Instead, change the story and learn college-level US history anyway.   Get a copy of the textbook and read it on your own.  Take US history at a local college or community college.  Or take a history class online for free at MIT. Then sign-up to take the AP test and see how you do.  Even if you don’t pass it, at least you’ve changed the story to something more positive.   

If you don’t get to be the starting catcher on the baseball team, don’t complain about “team politics.”  Work even harder.  Be an example to your teammates.  Bring a great attitude to practice every day.  At worst, you’ll spend the season as a capable backup who earned your coach’s respect and pushed the starter to keep her spot.  And at best, maybe you’ll get the starting nod someday.  Either way, you’ve changed the story.   

If you got an 89% in biology, don’t complain that your teacher wouldn’t give you the A.  You have two options.  1) You can either be happy with your effort and accept the B (there’s no shame in that).  2) You can figure out what you’ll do differently to get an A next semester.  Meet with your teacher to get his recommendations. Work even harder and show your teacher how badly you want to master biology.  Now instead of complaining, you’ve changed the story.

I’m not suggesting you should just keep quiet and wear it if someone is really treating you unfairly.  But most high school disappointments won’t be improved by complaining.  Part of being successful means learning how to navigate those situations and come out of them smarter, stronger and more mature.  That’s why so many colleges ask essay questions about failures, mistakes, and what you’ve learned from them.

You can’t always change an outcome.  But you can always change the story. 

Good failure vs. bad failure

As college admissions to the most selective schools has gotten more competitive, too many future applicants are afraid to experience, or to admit, failure.  But there is such a thing as a good failure. 

If you try out for the varsity soccer team and get cut, it’s not fun.  But that doesn’t mean it's a bad failure.  Maybe you use that free time to do something else you’re excited about?  Maybe you use getting cut as motivation to come back even stronger next year?  Maybe you find a way to be a part of the team anyway by being the team manager, or taking photos of the games, or running the fundraiser?  Any of those scenarios turns that failure into something good. 

Most successful students—and adults—have experienced failure.  If you put yourself out there enough times to go after things that aren’t easy to achieve, you’re going to fail every now and then.  There’s no shame in it.  It may be a big fat cliché with cheese, but the real failure is never trying. 

One of our most successful applicants at Collegewise wrote her essay about how she had lost every election she had every run in…badly.  But she used each of those opportunities to find activities that were even better suited to her.  And she ended up at Notre Dame. 

Sure, not all failures are good.  I’m not suggesting that you should blow off studying for your biology midterm just so you can experience failure.

But if you have a good failure, don’t be ashamed about it.  And don’t be afraid to share it with colleges (especially if they ask you about a failure and what you learned from it).  It takes a mature, confident person to admit defeat and to move on positively.

Colleges don’t expect you to be perfect.  And in fact, most will be impressed by good failures.

Just being yourself is impressive enough

My friend Paul from The Princeton Review knows more about standardized tests than anyone you will ever meet, so much so that he is a sought-after public speaker who is routinely flown all over the world to teach audiences how to put these tests into perspective.  Everyone leaves his speeches glad they gave up the time to attend.  He’s also a savvy businessman who for 20 years owned and ran the most successful branch of The Princeton Review before he sold it in 2009.  He’s mentored countless employees, high school counselors, and entrepreneurs who are grateful to him for his support and advice.  He’s the picture of success.  

Next week, Paul is scheduled to speak at a prominent local high school.  Today, the head counselor emailed him asking for a high resolution headshot they could use to promote the event.  This is the photo he sent.

IMG_6144 If you know Paul, you’re not surprised.  In a word, Paul is silly.  He wears outrageous clothing.  His outgoing voicemails are always outlandish.  He’s always the first to poke fun at himself and takes only a few minutes to establish himself as the funniest member of any group.  This photo isn’t shtick.  It’s just Paul being himself.  That’s why people love and respect him as much as they do.

If you’re applying to college this fall, learn from Paul’s example.  I’m not saying every student should be goofy in your college applications.  But you should unapologetically be yourself.  Whether you’re a jock or a math geek, the lead in the school play or the tech-expert who runs the lights, a musician or an artist, a dancer or a poet, a kid who takes karate classes or one who works part time at a hamburger stand, a straight-A student or an average scholar who’s still a nice kid looking for the right school to spend the next four years, don’t be afraid to reveal yourself to colleges.  Be proud of who you are.  And never try to mold yourself into somebody you’re not just to impress admissions committees.    

As long as you’re applying to the right colleges, just being yourself is impressive enough.

Figure out how to make it work

Last week, a student told one of our counselors,

“I don’t even know my high school counselor.  I’ve had a new counselor every year since I started high school.”

Here’s what we told him:

“I understand that’s frustrating.  Tough.  You’ve got to figure out how to make this work.  It’s time to go talk to your new counselor.” 

Sure, it would be great if you had the same counselor for four years.  But people change jobs.  People get laid off.  People get promoted and do different jobs.  That’s the way the world works.

What are you going to do when you’re out in the workforce and your boss you’ve been working like crazy to impress leaves or gets promoted?  Are you going to write off your career and give up?  Of course not.  You’re going to have to figure out how to make this work, get to know your new boss and do good enough work that she'll notice and appreciate you.

A lot of the experiences you have in high school make for good life training.  If you’ve had two or three different counselors during the high school years, you can complain.  Or you can figure out how to make it work.  And only one of those options will help you get into college.  

How much positivity are you giving out?

Everybody—students, teachers and parents—needs a pat on the back every now and then.  One of the many great books from the Gallup Organization, “How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life,” talks about this using the analogy of a bucket.  The book’s premise is that we all have a personal bucket that needs to be filled with positive experiences like recognition or praise. So we have two choices to make about how to treat people.  We can always lean towards being critical and negative, which takes away from their buckets.  Or we can be positive, thankful and congratulatory, which fills their buckets and actually makes ourselves feel even more positive.  Yes, the premise may sound a little hokey and obvious, but how much time do you really spend consciously treating other people positively? 

There are plenty of applications here for managers, teachers, parents, and husbands/wives (as described in the book), but here are a few ways I think high school students could put this to use.

With your teachers

If you’re really enjoying a class, tell your teacher.  If your teacher stays after school to help you, tell her how much you appreciated it and how much good it did you.  If your teacher helps you with your college essay, or reads over a rough draft and gives you good feedback, or offers you any good advice that really helped you, say so and fill your teacher’s bucket.

With your parents

If you suffer a setback (like a low grade on a test) and your parents are understanding and supportive, tell them how much it helped you to know they were in your corner.  If your parents give you good advice to help you through a situation where you needed some guidance, thank them and let them know how much you benefitted from their advice.  And if they cheer you on when you have a big success, tell them how much their praise meant to you.  Here are a few more suggestions from an old post.

With your friends and classmates

If one of your friends makes the varsity team, sets the curve on a test, or gets accepted to his or her dream college, offer up a sincere congratulations and let your friend know how happy you are.  Congratulate the members of the cross country team when they win the league championship, the cast of the school play when they close out their final performance, or the writer on the school newspaper who writes a particularly good article you appreciated.  And if one of your friends is there for you in a time of need the way we all need a good friend to be every now and then, express your thanks.  Let your friend know the support didn’t go unappreciated.

The message here (and in the book) isn’t that you should lavish thanks and praise on everyone for no good reason—you won’t add anything to their buckets if you aren’t sincere.  But heartfelt positivity is free to you and so ridiculously easy to give if you’re conscious about it.  It will make you feel good about your relationships with people in your life.  And it will go a long way towards making people want to be there for you again in the future.

Focusing on the short term

Long term goals are great motivators.  But the way you get there is by adding up enough good, productive individual days.  And that means focusing on short term goals, too.

For students heading back to school today, just worry about having a good, productive day you can be proud of.  Pay attention in class.  Ask questions.  Use your homework time as a time to really learn the material rather than just get it done as quickly as possible.  Bring some effort and enthusiasm to your activities.  Smile.  Be nice to people (including your parents, your teachers and your counselor).   When you finish the day, be honest with yourself about whether or not you really did your best in all those areas.  If you didn’t, don’t beat yourself up.  Just resolve to be better the next day.

Add up enough individual days like that, and you're bound to be happy with the outcome.

And while you're at it, remember that while nobody said reaching any of your goals would be easy, there's no law that says you have to be miserable to be successful.  Make sure that the pursuit of both your short term and long term goals actually makes you happy, too.

You can get more out of it…or less

Seth Godin wrote on his blog last week:


You can either seek to get more out of an opportunity (job, technology, interaction, person, moment), or less.  More exposure, more risk, more upside, more work, more learning, more engagement, more passion, more chance to be blamed, more opportunity to make a difference, more effort…or less."

What does that look like for a high school student?

You can sit in your trigonometry class and take notes that just copy what your teacher writes on the board.  Or you could get more out of it.  Don’t just copy the problems—write the steps on separate lines.  Include your own commentary.  When you don’t understand something, raise your hand and ask a question.  Or go see your teacher immediately after class.  Treat this class time like study time.  Get more out of your time there.

You can attend meetings of the Red Cross Club, sit quietly, listen, and maybe think about running for an office one day.  Or you could go to each meeting looking for opportunities to actually do things.  You could offer to pitch in and help the officers.  You could ask questions, contribute your own ideas, and recognize those people who are doing a great job.  If you’re going to go to the meeting, why not get more out of it?

When you meet with your counselor, when you audition for the school play, when you visit a college or take a cooking class or even just plan an evening with your friends, how could you get more out of it?   The best part of this is that the answer is entirely up to you.  Nobody’s stopping you from getting more out of what you do.   

Lies people tell high school freshmen

For new freshmen starting school next week, it's important that you get the right information about how to get into college.  So you're going to need to learn to spot bad advice.  Here are five lies a lot of freshmen hear when they start high school.  Anyone who tells you these are true is probably not someone you want to go to for academic or college advice.

1. The freshman year doesn’t count for college admissions.

The freshman year is always the least important year when colleges evaluate you (they figure you’re just trying to find the school every day). But that doesn’t mean the freshman year doesn’t matter at all. Lots of colleges, particularly private schools, will look at the freshman year.  And since your academic performance as a freshman influences what classes you’ll be able to take as a sophomore, it matters for pretty much every college. So don’t panic if you have a stumble here or there while learning the ropes of high school. But don’t blow off your freshman year, either.

2. Colleges like students who hold leadership positions.

When people say, "Leadership looks good on your college applications,” it implies that leadership is somehow better than other activities. Colleges do like leadership. But they don’t like it more (or less) than athletics, art, music, community service, taking cooking classes, writing for the newspaper or any other activity that you really care about and make an impact doing. Colleges don’t have a magic list of activities that look “good.” They just want to see that you have the initiative and passion to find things you love doing and to commit yourself to them.

3. (Insert name of teacher here) is a terrible teacher.

I’m going to let you in on a secret. A lot of students who claim a particular teacher is "terrible" are just bitter that they didn't do well in the class.  The best students don’t complain about terrible teachers. They find a way to get good grades no matter who the teacher is.  I’m not saying that great students love all their teachers or that every teacher is of equal quality. But part of being a successful student means learning to get along with all of your teachers, asking questions, and being willing to ask for extra help when you need it.

4. It’s impossible to get into a good college today.

There are about 40 colleges that are absurdly difficult to get into. But there are over 2,000 colleges in the country, and all but about 100 of them take pretty much everybody who applies. The harder you work and the more successful you are, the more college opportunities you’re going to have, so your efforts are certainly worth it. But don’t take yourself out of the game by believing that only straight-A, perfect test scoring, proton-inventing students get into college.

5. The counselors at school don’t do anything.

Anyone at a high school who claims the counselors don’t do anything is probably A) someone who’s never bothered to visit his counselor, and B) a jerk.  High school counselors work hard for their students.  If you’re at a big school, your counselor might not seek you out and ask you to meet to talk about how to get into college.  But why should your counselor care about your college process more than you do?  If you want to go to college and you want your counselor’s advice, find your counselor, introduce yourself, and ask when you can schedule a meeting so you can talk about your college future.

How to achieve your goals in school this year

The start of a new academic year is a great time to set goals.  And a lot of students set ambitious ones, like:

  • Get a 4.0.
  • Score higher than 1800 on my SATs.
  • Become a starter on the varsity soccer team.
  • Be the editor-in-chief of the school paper by the end of the year.

Those are admirable.  But the problem is that while they define what you want to achieve, they don’t help you with your steps to getting there.  And that turns your ambitions into entirely pass or fail opportunities.  You could work like crazy, but if you don’t achieve your outcome, you’ll feel like you failed. 

Here are a few tips that will not only improve your chances of succeeding but will also make the process of getting there more valuable. 

1. Identify the most important steps you need to take—and be specific.

What are the most important actions you need to take to actually achieve your goals?  Figure those out first, and be specific.  “Study more” isn’t specific.  “Shut off my cell and my email until I’m done with my homework/studying each day” is specific.  It’s easier to do the old “One day at a time” technique when you’re focusing on small, specific actions.  And you can hold yourself accountable along the way.  You’ll know exactly what you need to do, and whether or not you’re actually doing it.

2. Focus on what’s worked before.

When you’ve achieved goals similar to these, how did that happen?  What did you do differently?  For example, when you were named a starter for the first time on the soccer team, were you doing anything differently?  Were you treating your practices like games?  Were you setting up teammates for goals?  Did you really kill it in the conditioning workouts?  Eliminating things that didn’t work is good.  But doubling those things that did work is even better. 

3. Learn from little victories.

Let’s say you decide that for you to become editor-in-chief of the newspaper, you need to be recognized as one of the best writers.  And in order to do that, you need to write at least two drafts of all your articles so you can have your journalism teacher critique them before you submit them to the current editor (good, specific action).  When you actually do that for your first article, you should take the time to learn from it.  How did you make the time to get those articles done early?  How will you do it again?  And don’t reserve your celebration for the day that you actually become the editor.  Start now.  Learning from and celebrating little victories keeps you focused on the positive.  And it will prevent you from getting discouraged about a goal that might occasionally seem unrealistic.  

4. Tell people about your goals.

Sometimes peer pressure is a good thing.  Tell your closest friends about your goals.  Maybe invite them to make their own?  Then resolve to help each other achieve them.  Telling people what you’re trying to do can help them be supportive, too.  If you resolve not to be online until your homework is done every night, tell your friends so they won’t get bent out of shape when you take longer than usual to respond to their emails and texts.

5. Recognize that the process is even more important than the outcome.

You should set high goals for yourself—that’s what successful people do.  But you should also remember that the efforts you make are just as important—if not more so—than whether or not you actually achieve the goals.  If you resolve to do all the homework in your SAT class and to actually use every technique you learn, your score will almost certainly improve.  But if you don’t get the score you wanted, you won’t have to blame yourself.  You won’t have to wonder if it could have been better if you’d just put in the effort.  And you’ll have the reward of knowing that you did all you could so you can confidently move on to something else now.