On asking for help

Wharton Business School professor and author Adam Grant offers up his take on How Not to Ask for a Recommendation Letter. It’s directed towards college students, and it’s too late for this year’s crop of high school seniors to implement the advice. But I’m sharing it anyway because I think all students (and many parents) can still draw some great lessons from it.

Here’s a snippet of what Grant said was one of the best recommendation requests he’s ever seen.

“I was hoping you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation because I have interacted with you over the past couple of years more than with any other professor here. I have made countless mistakes as a team leader, including micromanaging in our first weeks as a club, not giving proper feedback to my teammates about their performance, and not being able to defuse tension at board meetings. But I have also grown tremendously, especially with the help of your advice on…”

Part of being successful means asking for help when you need it. Those requests sometimes mean asking someone to do you a favor, and people don’t always feel compelled to say yes. So here are a few past posts that explain more about what this student did—and what you’ll need to do—if you want the people you’re asking for help to respond in kind.

Here’s one with Grant explaining why admitting your inadequacies—rather than simply selling your strengths—is a more effective way to get job offers, promotions, and board seats.

And another highlighting the most applicable of Grant’s “6 Ways to Get me to Email You Back.”

Here’s another, this one with my advice on how to deserve the help you need (along with some links to other past posts about how to ask for help effectively).

And a final one for parents with guidelines for emailing your student’s teachers.

The gossip antidote

Unless you write for National Enquirer, it’s hard to see how gossip can be a productive influence in your group of friends, employees, co-workers, etc. A recent Harvard Business Review article, The Antidote to Office Gossip, defines gossip as “casual and unconstrained conversation, about absent third parties, regarding information or events that cannot be confirmed as being true.” The article is aimed at managers, but just about anyone in any group can embrace the most important piece of advice:

“Employees look to their managers as role models and messengers of organizational values. It’s one thing to insist on conduct based on mutual regard and high character; it’s quite another to demonstrate it. Ethics and empathy should be the tandem directive for conduct. If you model integrity in what you say and do, your employees will likely follow suit.”

What if you modeled integrity in this way within your group? What effect would it have? And how much loyalty and respect would you engender? Worth giving it a try.

And here’s a past post about college admissions gossip and how to avoid it.

Four ways students can get more sleep

One of the many side effects of the escalating arms race of college admissions is the sleep deprivation for so many of today’s teens. There’s a growing body of research that shows just how important adequate sleep is for mental and physical health and performance. Check out this TED Talk by a pediatric neurologist, this study of elite performers in a variety of disciplines, this short video by the Army Surgeon General, and this study by the director of sleep medicine at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. They all agree on just how vital adequate sleep is, and how damaging—especially for children and teens—a lack of sleep can be.

So how are busy, hardworking students supposed to find the time for more sleep? Between classes, homework, practices, rehearsals, meetings, etc., many kids who would love to be asleep much earlier are staying up until the wee hours just to keep up and get their work done.

Here are a few tips that can help.

1. Make sleep a priority.
You might say there’s just no way you can get to bed earlier. But if you were offered a million dollars if you could successfully go to bed an hour earlier than your usual time every night for a week without letting your grades or commitments slide, you’d probably find a way. The first step towards doing anything is deciding that it’s important.

2. Prune your activities.
Activities are supposed to be things that you do by choice because you enjoy them. Are you involved in anything that’s lost its luster? Is there some commitment that seems to be taking your time without giving back any fun, learning, camaraderie, or other benefit? If so, consider letting that activity go. Colleges don’t expect you to spend every waking second doing something productive. And I’ve never met an admissions officer who would want a student to dutifully plod through an activity they just don’t like anymore.

3. Study smarter.
You know those students who do well in school without necessarily studying harder than the rest of the class? It’s not because they’re all just more intelligent. Most of them study smarter. Here are some tips to help you do the same.

4. Ditch the snooze button.
Check out this past post on why the snooze button makes you sleepy.

Five ways to show potential

Part of a college admissions officer’s job is to be a fortune teller. Who you were yesterday in high school is a lot less interesting to colleges than who you’ll be tomorrow in college. They choose a freshman class based on the predicted future success of the applicants. And while a track record of success in high school reveals a lot about an applicant’s preparation for the rigors of college, there’s another quality that, while hard to spot, is just as appealing–if not more so.


The word “potential” actually means something promising that has not yet been fully realized. An applicant with potential may have done good work in high school, but the potential means he or she has a good shot to do even better work once they get to college. So here are five ways to demonstrate potential to colleges. All of them are available to any student regardless of your GPA or test scores.

1. Be hungry.
(Figurative) hunger is a great pre-college trait. Are you hungry to learn as much as possible about the Civil War? Are you hungry to make a difference in your community? Are you hungry for a chance to play in the orchestra or serve on student council or design pages for the yearbook? Successful people aren’t satisfied just taking whatever happens to come along. They’re hungry to learn, help, accomplish and impact as much as possible. And successful high school students are hungry for more than just items to list on their college applications.

2. Capitalize on opportunities.
Not everything you do in high school will pay you back the same rewards. But applicants with potential recognize when they’re in a particularly good situation and try to capitalize on it. Do you have a favorite class or teacher? Did you get named a varsity starter, or get picked to play a major part in the musical, or get the part-time job you really wanted? These opportunities don’t come around every day. Now that yours is here, how will you extract the most from it? Will you try to challenge yourself, learn, and make as much of an impact as you possibly can? Or will you do just what’s asked of you until it’s time to move on to the next thing? High school is the perfect time to demonstrate that you recognize and appreciate these opportunities when they come along.

3. Get good at (good) failure.
Failing an exam because you didn’t study is a bad failure. But failing to win an office, failing to sink the free throws at the end of the game, failing to get that promotion at your part-time job in spite of your best efforts–those are good signs. They prove that you go after what you want and that you don’t shy away from things that are hard. And best of all, failing gives you the chance to show colleges your resiliency. Here are a few past posts, here and here, with examples of how to get good at good failing.

4. Be impatient for real experience.
It’s easy to sit back and talk about big plans, like how you plan to be premed because you want to help people, or how you want to run your own business someday. But a plan not pursued just remains a lot of talk. So why not start now? Take a class (in person or online). Get an internship or a part-time job. Read a book about the field. You don’t necessarily have to know what you want to do with your life or even what you want to study in college. But whatever you’re interested in or drawn to today, don’t just observe from afar. Take a few steps closer, maybe even to the point of getting some real experience if possible.

5. Let your excitement for college show.
A student who’s excited to attend college, to learn and grow and experience as much as possible, that’s a student who will work to satisfy that hunger (see #1) during their college years. Think about what you hope or expect to gain from college. Look for colleges that fit. Answer questions honestly about why you’re applying to your chosen schools. And don’t base your college excitement on being admitted to just one particular school (or a range of prestigious schools). Why? Because if your primary motivation in high school is just to get into a famous college, where’s the guarantee that you’ll keep being that same motivated, hardworking student once Prestige U actually lets you in?

And if you’re a “B” or “C” student, here’s a past post with a few more ways to show your potential to colleges.

Practicing paying attention

The evidence just keeps growing that multi-tasking increases the time you spend working and decreases the quality of what you produce. You end up doing more but getting less done. As this New York Times article points out:

“Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.”

It’s not easy for most of us to just disconnect and focus on one thing, but the article also goes on to give some helpful tips on how to practice paying attention.

Be good, or get good

I loved the simplicity of Seth Godin’s message in his recent post. You can either do what you’re good at, or get really good at what you do. But, as he puts it, “It makes no sense at all to grumble and do something poorly.”

It’s couched as career advice, but following it would get any student a lot closer to their college dreams.

What if it counted toward your grade?

I think too many high school students are over-scheduled and over-measured. Too many commitments. Too much strategizing about whether or not your choices will help you get into college. Too much emphasis placed on the outcomes rather than the effort. And far too little time spent relaxing, having fun, and just being kids.

Time off—and I mean real downtime that is just for you, the kind that has absolutely nothing to do with getting into college—is just as important to your future success and happiness as time on-the-clock is. When you’re relaxed and recharged, you’ll have the energy and focus you need to make the work hours even more productive.

If you meet with your counselor, why not respect her time and arrive eager to learn and to take her guidance?

If you take a part-time job, why not make the effort to thrive?

If you attend a meeting for your club, why not behave like a leader even if you don’t have an official leadership position?

There’s no need to apply performance measurements to everything. Your time should be your time, without grades, scores, or comparisons.

But the things you do at school, within your activities, and other commitments in the name of getting college-ready, treat them like they count toward your grade. You’ll get more out of—and give more to—your commitments and responsibilities. And if you stumble, there’s almost always an opportunity for a retake without hurting your GPA.

Who you are–and want to be

I still remember receiving one of my high school yearbooks and noticing that the yearbook staff had taken one last jab at a graduating senior who’d spent four years as the butt of a lot of people’s jokes. They’d replaced his chosen senior quote next to his portrait with one proclaiming that he was the king of all nerds. Not funny or original, but still plenty mean-spirited.

Today, that former student is a graduate of Berkeley and Harvard Law School, and a bestselling author with a wife and family. His life is full enough that I’m sure he never thinks about (or even remembers) that last high school slight. But if he does, he must feel pretty triumphant.

For some students, high school is just about the most unpleasant experience that you’ll ever need to survive (surpassed only by junior high school for similar reasons). The good news is that you’re pretty much certain to find a different experience in college.

Yes, cliques, barbs, and social pressures still exist in college (far less so at some schools than others), but not nearly to the degree that they do in high school. Fitting in is an abstract concept in college. Between the diversity of backgrounds and interests, the maturity that comes after leaving high school, and the fact that there’s almost always someone at college who looks and acts weirder than you do means that there’s a place—and a group—for everyone.

My freshman dorm at college included two former high school football stars, a fan of Medieval Times who wore authentic clothing and jousted with fellow warriors, a drummer in a popular local band, a rock-climbing engineering major, a collegiate basketball standout, two fraternity members, three bespectacled pre-meds, a (computer) hacker, and a Marine Corps ROTC recruit. That was just on my floor alone.

Every college bound student has a lot to look forward to (here are 50 examples). And for some, the top of the list might be the opportunity to finally escape high school and be in a more accepting environment.

If that’s you, high school might seem like it’s lasting forever. But don’t worry. It will pass and eventually become just a distant memory in your life’s rearview mirror. Hang in there and look forward to the new world that college will present to you, one where you’ll have the freedom to be who you are and the opportunity to become who you want to be.

Try the right self-talk

When you’re nervous about an important event—like taking the SAT, going to your college interview, playing in the finals on the tennis team, etc., what does the voice in your head say? Second-guessing yourself with thoughts like, “I should have studied more” or “I’m probably not as good as the others” definitely won’t help your performance. But pumping yourself up with positivity like, “You can do this!” isn’t actually as effective as a third option.

In this short video, author Dan Pink explains interrogative self-talk, a simple, easy-to-use technique to improve your performance in pressure situations. Research shows that simply asking yourself, “Can you do this?” and then answering the question with all the reasons you’re likely to succeed actually improves the chances that you’ll do just that.

If your nerves sometimes get the best of you before that big test, big game, or any other situation where the pressure is on, why not give interrogative self-talk a try?

The cost of quick checks

If you’re still convinced that you can get your best work done while constantly switching your attention to incoming emails, texts, and other distractions, the research on “attention residue” says otherwise, as this article points out. Bottom line: you’re sharper and more productive when you commit to long blocks with no interruptions (not even a quick glance at your inbox or phone).

You pay a price for all those “quick checks.”