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.

How to dramatically cut down your study time

Why is it that the most successful students, the ones who always get the best grades, often say, "I barely studied for that test."

Sure, a few of them are just ridiculously, annoyingly smart, the type who seem to understand everything the first time it's explained to them.  I always hated (read "worshiped") those kids because I wished I were like them.

Most of the successful–but still mortal– students maximize their time in class, a technique I described in this January, 2010 post.

But one thing they all do is make the most of the time they spend studying.  As Cal Newport describes in this post, if you study in short, focused one-hour bursts, the total time you'll need to understand the material will be a lot less than if you try to do it all in one marathon session.

If you tend to procrastinate and study at the last minute, Cal's technique might inspire you to change your ways. 

Sizing a student up

Without seeing a transcript, test scores, or a resume, we can learn a lot about a student in 10-15 minutes.  I can't necessarily tell where he'll get into college without more information, but I can tell whether he's going to be successful in the college application process, and even in life after college. 

Here are a few signs (for us) that a student is going places.

1)  He smiles, looks us in the eye, and shakes our hand when we meet him.

2)  He's respectful of his parents, but doesn't let them talk for him.

3)  He's engaged in the conversation.  He doesn't look bored by a discussion of his education.

4)  He asks thoughtful questions.

5) He's self-assured, comfortable talking about himself, while at the same time not seeming too self-impressed.

6)  He admits what he's not good at, where he's made mistakes, or areas of his life where he needs to improve.  He doesn't blame those shortcomings on other people.

7)  He's genuinely interested in the things he's doing.  He can't hide his enthusiasm for water polo, drama or collecting stamps.

8)  He has a favorite class and teacher.

9)  He seems genuinely happy and excited about life after high school.

10)  He thanks us at the end of the meeting.  

I don't care of a kid is a C student with the worst scores in the history of standardized tests.  If he can show us some or all of these qualities, he's got potential, and the right college will help him fulfill it.

Any kid can develop and benefit from these traits.  Almost all of them are about attitude more than they are ability.  So even if your SAT scores are low, or you just can't seem to grasp chemistry, or you didn't make the varsity soccer team, remember that success in the college application process and in life are about more than just your numbers and your accomplishments.

 

How to get into Stanford with Bs on your transcript

I can't believe I'd never found Cal Newport's blog until yesterday. 

He's a Phi Beta Kappa grad from Dartmouth who also got a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT in 2009.  And he's the author of a new book, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out

But the real reason I was so happy to find his work is that he's all about showing students:

  • How to live a low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. 
  • How you can get into great colleges and have a successful life by simply doing fewer things, doing them better, and knowing why you're doing them
  • Why it's more important in college admissions that you be interesting than it is for you to be impressive.

And even if you're one of those students who has your heart set on a
highly selective college, Cal's techniques can work for you, too. For starters, check out his post, How to Get Into Stanford with Bs on your transcript.

You don’t get a second chance to make a last impression

People worry a lot about first impressions, which makes sense.  They set the tone of the relationship.  If you show up to the first day of soccer try-outs and have the practice of your life, your coach already believes you can contribute to the team.  If you have a great first day of Spanish class, your Spanish teacher already believes you're a valuable addition to the class.   Smiling and confidently shaking your college interviewer's hand, writing a good introductory email message, or showing up on time for a first date, you're off to a good start.  You won't need to make up ground.   

But good or bad, first impressions are temporary.  Last impressions, on the other hand, are permanent.

If you're the treasurer of the student body and you do a masterful job managing the finances for the entire year, but leave no accurate records for your successor when she takes over, you've made a bad last impression.  You won't be remembered as the treasurer who did a great job.  You'll be remembered as the treasurer who didn't care enough to set the next treasurer up for success.

If you have a great basketball season but lash out at your teammates during a tough loss in the playoffs, you won't be remembered as a good player, leader, or teammate.  

And if you do so well in your Calculus class that you're virtually assured an "A," so you slack off and disrupt the class for finals week, your teacher isn't going to remember you as a committed and engaged student.

It's easy to let your last impression slide when you feel you've got nothing left to prove or gain from the experience.  But remember, what you do last is what people will remember first. 

What's the last impression you're leaving with your teachers at the end of the school year?  What's the last impression you're leaving with your coaches at the end of the season?  Or your boss when you decide to leave your job?  Or your college interviewer at the end of the interview?  Or your school when you finish your tenure as the editor of the yearbook or columnist for the newspaper or the president of the junior class?

Finish strong and leave a good last impression, too.

Things your teachers notice about you in class

I'm not a high school teacher, but I do a lot of our seminars at Collegewise.  And it's hard not to make judgments about a student by how he acts during a class.  Whether you're an "A" student or "C" student, I imagine that your teachers notice these things, too.

1.  Are you writing things down?

When I say, "Here's the most important piece of advice I can give you about college essays," I notice which 3 of the 20 students in the room don't bother to write down the advice that follows.  And I know the 17 who do take notes are engaged enough to want to make the most of our time together.  It tells me who's serious about getting into college.  Imagine if I were a chemistry teacher and one of those non-note-takers got a "C" and came to me to ask for extra credit so he could improve his grade.  Not gonna happen, kid.

2.  Do you seen genuinely happy to be there? 

I'm sure my trigonometry teacher in high school knew how bored I was by math because I spent a lot of time yawning in his class.  Now that I'm up in front of the classroom, I realize how bad the sleepers look.  Students who pay attention, who have pleasant expressions, who even acknowledge you with a nod of the head or a courtesy laugh at one of my stupid jokes, they come off like engaged learners.  Imagine if you were on a date and the person was yawning during dinner, doodling on the tablecloth and generally looking bored.  Wouldn't you be a little insulted?  Doing those things in class is like saying to your teacher, "I don't want to listen to you, and I don't want to be here."

3.  Do you ask good questions?

"Do we have to do this?" is a stupid question.  "What's an example of a college with strange essay prompts?" is a good question.  Whether or not you ask, and the questions you raise, they both say a lot about you as a student.  Questions that seek to help you better understand the material, or that just show you're interested and want to more, are good ways to show your teacher that you are an engaged learner. 

4.  Do you participate?

At a seminar yesterday, I asked, "Who remembers from our essay seminar how you take ownership of a story?"  I could have predicted which kids were going to put their hands up–those that had been writing things down and were engaged in the discussion (see questions 1, 2 and 3). 

5.  Are you nice to other students?

If a student is having trouble understanding, or if he asks a question that seems silly to you, or if he's just not as smooth and socially successful as the rest of the class, do you roll your eyes, snicker at him, or whisper a comment to one of your friends and then giggle?  If you do, trust me, your teacher notices.  And I'll tell you something–the kid who does those things is never one of the nice kids.  The nice kid who leans over and offers to help the struggling one, who whispers, "Hey, want me to show you how to do it?"  I like that kid.  Extra credit for you.    

How to be lucky in college admissions

If you want to have more luck in your life (and in your college admissions process), it turns out you can create it. 

According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor: Changing Your
Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles," lucky people think and behave in ways that unlucky people don't.

Here are the excerpts from an interview in Fast Company magazine.  I think there are lots of ways to apply this to your college admissions process. 

1. Maximize chance opportunities
"Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing, and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, which include building and maintaining a strong network, adopting a relaxed attitude to life, and being open to new experiences."

Do you have the initiative to take a psychology class outside of school just because it looks interesting, or to try karate just because it looks fun?  Would you take the opportunity to start a car wash business with a friend or take a road trip to look at a college you've never heard of or introduce yourself to some students on campus once you got there?  Lucky students would do those things.  Unlucky students wouldn't try anything unless they were guaranteed it could help them get into college.  

2. Listen to your lucky hunches.
"Lucky people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings."

Are you willing to listen to your gut instincts and apply to the colleges that you really believe are best for you, regardless of what your friends or the US News rankings say?  Would you write the college essay you want to write about how you sing in the shower even though your parents think you should write about doing community service?  Would you pick Oberlin over Princeton because it just felt right?  Lucky students would.  Unlucky students would never take what feels like a risk.  They always want to do what feels safe and guaranteed.

3. Expect good fortune.
"Lucky people are certain that the future will be bright. Over time, that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it helps lucky people persist in the face of failure and positively shapes their interactions with other people."

Are you excited about your future life in college?  Do believe that you'll learn and have fun wherever you go to school?  Do you have enough faith in yourself to know that your work ethic and personal characteristics, not the name of the college you go to, are what will ultimately make you successful?  Lucky students do.  Unlucky students believe that everything hinges on whether or not Stanford or Duke or UCLA says "Yes."   

4. Turn bad luck into good.
Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, they don't dwell on the ill fortune, and they take control of the situation.

Whenever a parent tells me that her daughter is "just devastated" by a rejection from her dream college, there's a part of me that wants to swoop in and tell that kid, "Get over it.  Do you know how many people would do anything just to have the chance to go to college at all?"

Lucky students don't dwell on college rejections, or the fact that they lost the election for senior class president, or that the their girlfriend broke up with them.  They believe there's too much life to live to get bogged down by those events.  They know there are other colleges and other offices and other girls out there, and that they'll probably end up with a better one now.  Unlucky students just want to lament their fate.    

You can be a lucky student (or parent) if you want to be. 

How to write a good email message

Today's college applicant is much more likely to email, not call, someone with a question or request.  Whenever you email someone, the person on the receiving end is going to make assumptions and judgments about you based on what you write and how you write it.  So here's an email checklist before you send anything to an admissions officer, teacher, counselor, or anyone else involved in your college application process.

1. Do you actually have permission to email this person?  A college rep who hands you his card at a college fair and says, "Feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions" has given you permission.  But just because you found the email address for the Dean of Admissions online doesn't mean she's invited you to email her.  Don't be a spammer.

2. Make sure your email address is just a name, not something embarrassing like sexyhotpartyguy33@email.com.  Get a new email address just for college application stuff if you have to.

3. Make the subject line something descriptive.  "Question" isn't descriptive.  "Question from a fall 2011 applicant" is.

4. Address the person by name at the beginning, like, "Ms. Harrington-"  Imagine if someone walked up to you and just started asking you a question without even saying hi first.  Wouldn't it be rude (and a little weird)?

5. If the person doesn't know you or may not remember you, identify yourself in the first paragraph.

6.Keep your email to one screen.  Don't write something so long that they have to scroll through it.

7. Use punctuation, capitalization, and proper grammar.  Don't make excuses not to do this.  This is not a text message.  Nobody ever looked stupid for sending a properly capitalized and punctuated email, but they have looked that way for ignoring the rules. 

8. Observe the difference between "your" and "you're."  Sorry–I know that's related to #7 but it's ignored often enough that I thought it deserved its own mention.

9. Don't ever type in all caps.  When you write "PLEASE RESPOND TO ME ASAP" it reads like you're yelling at the person.

10. Be careful with exclamation points for the same reason.  "I really hope you can write my letter!" sounds like you're yelling.

11. It's OK to write like you talk as long as you're respectful.  "The purpose of my email is to request your assistance with my college applications" is too formal.  "I'm writing to ask you if you might be able to help me with my college applications" gets the job done.

12. Use a normal font.  Think black type and normal size.  No bright colors, cursive, blinking lights or animated creatures of any kind.   

13. If you're asking for something, say "please."

14. Always say "thank you" at the end. 

15. Proofread it carefully.

16. Type your full name at the end of the message.  If you need a reply back, leave a phone number, too, so the person has the option of calling.

17. Don't include a quote in your auto-signature.  You don't need to remind this person that "the only way to have a friend is to be one."  And nobody in the history of email has ever read one of those quotes and said, "Wow, that really made me stop and think." 

18.  Be careful CCing people on the email.  The receiver doesn't know those people.  Imagine if you walked into this person's office and didn't introduce the two people you brought in tow. 

19. Think twice before you mark your email "urgent."  It might be urgent to you, but it's not necessarily urgent to the person you're sending it to.

20. Read it through one last time and try to imagine receiving this message yourself.  Is it clear?  Is it polite?  Does it make you want to reply?  If the answer to any of those questions is "No," wait to send it until you re-write your way to a "Yes."

*Bonus email tip that may or may not have to do with college admissions:

Are you angry?  Are you sending this email to someone who's made you angry?  Warren Buffet once said, "You can always tell a guy to go to hell tomorrow.  You don't give up that opportunity."  But once you put your anger out there, it's there.  You can't take it back.  So write it, but don't send it.  Come back tomorrow and read it again.  And if you're still angry, then click "Send."