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.”

More deep work = more success in less time

Study skills author Cal Newport set goals to (1) become a professor by the age of 30, and (2) become tenured by age 35. He attributes his success in meeting both those goals to one skill. In fact, it’s the same skill he claims also got him into Dartmouth. And best of all, it’s available to any student, with any GPA. Newport calls it deep work, and he even wrote a book about it.

Turn off the distractions. Set aside quiet, uninterrupted time. And focus on doing difficult, important work.

If the return on that investment meant you’d get more done with more success in less time, why not give it a try?

A Nobel Prize-worthy study skill

According to Daniel Coyle’s “The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills,” the best way to learn from a book isn’t to read and reread. Instead, read it once and then write a one-page summary.

Here’s the passage as quoted on this blog:

“Research shows that people who (wrote a summary) remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow (repeatedly read). This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning. On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.”

To be honest, if someone had recommended this to me when I was in high school, I would have rolled my eyes and moved on with reading (and rereading).

But this exercise isn’t about writing—it’s about learning.

I’ve written before that the most effective way to really know something is to prepare to teach it. In fact, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feymann did it when wrapping his brain around concepts far more complex than high school homework assignments, as explained here by study skills author Scott Young.

To write a one-page summary of a book forces you to review the key ideas, to make distinctions between what’s important and what isn’t, and to explain how each concept ties into the overall message of the reading. If you can do those things, you understand what you’ve read.

So even if you take what would have been my high school approach and laugh off the idea of writing the summary (I don’t blame you), instead, just take 10 minutes and teach it back as if you were standing in front of the class. You won’t laugh it off once you try it.

And here’s a past post of mine with five habits of highly-effective students.