No excuses

I worked with a student who once lamented to me that the police in his neighborhood were so "bored" that they'd given him three speeding tickets in one month. 

What?  You're blaming the police?

Then his parents told me, "Can you believe how unlucky he is?  To get three speeding tickets in one month!"

Again…what???

One of the most important skills a person can have is the ability to admit fault.  Take responsibility.  Own up to your mistakes and apologize if you've hurt anybody.

It's so easy to do, and it will go so far towards making you more likeable, responsible, and trustworthy.

Excuses rarely make someone like and respect you more.  And it's not likely to work on colleges, either. 

Can you teach it back?

The best way to learn something is to get to a point where you could teach it to someone else.

When the University of California first announced their new eligibility requirements, I was asked to explain them to a group of students and parents at a local high school.  I'd already read all the material and was comfortable that I understood the changes.  But getting ready to teach other people about it meant I needed to decide what information deserved the most attention, figure out how to best explain it, and try to anticipate what questions families might have.  I understood it all much better as a result of that process.

Preparing to teach something is a great example of active learning.  You can't just passively review the material.  You've got to be actively engaged, testing yourself as you go along to make sure you're ready to explain it to someone else. 

The next time you're studying for a test, imagine you had to go in the next day and teach the material to your class.  How would you explain it?  What would focus on?  What parts might generate a lot of questions from your classmates, and how would you answer them?  In fact, what If you did that every night as you did your homework?  If you pretended every night that you were going to have to go in and teach the material the next day, how much better would you understand it? 

And how much time would you really need to spend studying for your next test?

If you're prepared to teach it, you'll be prepared to take a test on it.

How to write a thank-you note

There are two ways to write a thank-you note.  One is to get it over with, to say the basics, keep it short, and send a quick email (capitalization optional).  Those notes sound like this.

Dear Mr. Gerard:

Thank you very much for writing my letters of recommendation for
college.  I know that you were very busy at the time and I appreciated
your help. I hope you have a good summer, and thank you again for your assistance.

Sincerely,

Rebeca Callahan

Sending a thank-you note like that means you've accomplished one
thing–you've made sure nobody can accuse you of not sending a
thank-you note. 

Don't get me wrong.  Sending any kind of thank-you note is better
than sending nothing at all.  But if someone deserves to be thanked, don't they deserve to be thanked well? 

Put some effort into your thank-you note.  Show the person that you recognize the fact they did a favor for you, that you sincerely appreciate the effort made on your behalf.  Write it on stationary (not over email).  Use capitals and punctuation (seriously, use capitals and punctuation). 

There's no formula for what to say; the key is to just be sincere and take the time to give a proper thanks.

It makes a difference. 

Dear Mr. Gerard:

Now that the college admissions process is officially over, I wanted to thank you again for taking the time to write my letters of recommendation.  I can only imagine how many letters you must have written for students this fall (I know that most of my friends
planned on asking you to write their letters, too), but I really do appreciate the time and effort that you took for me.

I also wanted to tell you that I've decided on Hamilton College and I'm planning to major in history.  I'm not sure I ever would have considered studying history in college if I hadn't taken your class, but after I did that oral report on the Hamilton-Burr duel in front of the entire class without passing out, I'm sure I'm ready for whatever college history throws my way.

You're a good teacher, Mr. Gerard, and I always looked forward to going to your class every day.  My younger sister, Jenna, is a freshman this year, and I've told her to do whatever it takes to get into your class.  She's a much better public speaker than I am, by the way, so she won't be prone to fainting when it's time to do oral reports.

I'm so excited to go to college, and I'm sure I would not have had as many options as I did were it not for your help.  Thank you again for everything you've done for me, and have a wonderful summer.

All my best,

Rebecca Callahan

Hamilton College, Class of 2014

How to handle college rejections

This is the month when the majority of college decisions arrive home.  And while there will be a lot of happy squealing and celebrating by the mailbox, it can also be a disheartening time for students when a college for whom they were holding out hope doesn’t come through with an offer of admission.

I don’t want to minimize that disappointment.  Many kids today (I believe unfortunately so) predicate their hard work on goals to be admitted to particular, often very selective, colleges. For those kids, it’s an especially painful sting when those colleges say, “No.”

But like break-ups, bad hair cuts, and embarrassing moments, the pain associated with the rejection will eventually pass.  Here are a few tips to speed up the healing process a little.

1. Maintain your perspective.

You are allowed be disappointed by a rejection.  But (warning, a little tough love coming here), you are not allowed to treat the rejection like a tragedy.  This isn’t a tragedy; it’s a disappointment, and all successful people have their share of them.  It’s important to remember how lucky you are to be living in a country with the best system of higher education in the world.  Wherever you go, you will carve out a college experience that you’ll one day tell your kids about.  It’s still going to happen, and that’s something worth appreciating.

You should also know that while not everybody gets into their first choice colleges, statistics show that the vast majority of college students report that they are very happy where they are.  Seriously, can you blame them?  Have you ever been to a college party?

That statistic is a good thing.  It means that thousands and thousands of students who were right where you are today, students who felt the sting of a rejection from a college they loved, are reveling in their college lives now.  It will happen for you, too.

2. Try not to take the rejection personally.

College rejections often feel bitterly personal.  But a rejection does not necessarily mean that the admissions office didn’t love your essay or appreciate your activities or think you wouldn’t be a great addition to the campus.  A rejection often just means that there weren’t enough spaces to go around.  So don’t think that a rejection invalidates all of the work you’ve done.  It just means that you’ll be taking that work ethic with you to a different college.

3.  Move on.

Not getting into a college you loved is a little like going through a break-up.  Break-ups can be rough.  It’s almost impossible to imagine feeling the same way again about someone else.  But you always do eventually (have you ever met a 20 or 30 or 50 year-old who’s still devastated over a high school breakup?).  You just have to put yourself out there and find someone else.

A college rejection is a lot like that.  It hurts, but you’ll get over it faster if you let yourself move on. If you’ve been accepted to other colleges, you already have your suitors awaiting you.  It’s like getting dumped at noon and having six voicemails by 2 p.m. from desirable people who want to date you.  If only romance worked that way.

You won’t remember this rejection in a few months once you move into a dorm.  So you’re allowed a brief period of college-rejection mourning if necessary.  But as quickly as you can, move on.  Start to imagine yourself at one of the other
colleges.  The sooner you begin falling in love with a college that said, “Yes,” the sooner you’ll be excited about the next four years. And speaking of that…

4. Look six months down the road.  

One of the best ways to get over a college rejection is to look ahead six months from now.  This September, you will be moving into a dorm.  You’ll be meeting your new roommate while your parents exact a promise that you’ll call home on a regular basis.  You’ll be buying a sweatshirt bearing the name of your new college. You’ll go to your first college class, start making your initial college friends, and officially begin your life as a college freshman.  Do you have any idea just how exciting that’s going to be for you?

Six months from now, the college rejection that stings today will be a distant memory.  That’s why rejections don’t dash college dreams in the long run.  Once a student commits to a college who said “Yes,” the rejections and their associated pain will disappear.  I promise.

5.  And here’s a tip for the parents.

The most important advice I can give a parent whose son or daughter receives a disappointing rejection is to remember that your kids are looking to you to set the example of how to handle it.  I recognize that this is a lot of pressure on a parent, especially given that you can’t help but share the same disappointment your kids feel.  But as adults, we’ve had more experience handling life’s disappointments. Kids are relatively new to this and will inevitably follow a parent’s lead.

Tell your son or daughter your love and pride doesn’t change because a college said “No.”  Be excited about the schools who said, “Yes.”  And most importantly, show your kids what it means to just be thankful for health and family and the chance to attend a college at all. Your kids will follow your lead.

What happens next?

A Collegewise father once called me and told me,

"Kevin, you won't believe this.  Lauren (his daughter) just called me and said, 'Dad, I'm graduating from college in two months.  So, what happens next?'"

He had a reply that would have made my own father proud.

"I told her, 'What happens next?  I'll tell you.  You go to work every day like ME!"

Students, wherever you end up in college, enjoy it.  Wring as much learning and fun from your time as you can.  You have a lot to look forward to in your life after college, but the experiences you have while you're there are likely a one shot deal.  So make the most of that time before you have to figure out what happens next.

Treat rejections like break-ups

When someone breaks up with you, you have two options.

1.  You can enter an extended period of mourning.  You can blame yourself and say you weren't pretty enough or smart enough or fun enough.  You can wallow, shun other potential dates, and remain convinced that you'll never find love again.

2.  Or you can mourn–briefly–and move on, assured that there are plenty of good matches out there for you who will appreciate you for you who are. 

The second option is far, far better than the first.

A college rejection should be treated like a break-up except for one crucial difference; break-ups are personal, college decisions are not.  They might feel that way, but the fact that you were rejected does not necessarily mean that the admissions office didn't love your essay or appreciate your activities or think you wouldn't be a great addition to the campus.  Sometimes is just means that there weren't enough spaces to go around. 

Post-rejection dejection is normal.  But wallowing in a college rejection, telling yourself that you might have gotten in if your test scores were higher or if you took another AP class or if your essay were just a little stronger, that's like beating yourself up after a break-up.  It will only make you feel worse and delay your opportunity to find a better match.  

The best thing you can do is accept the rejection and move on to one of the colleges who was smart enough and lucky enough to offer you a spot.      

Your best academic experience?

The best academic experience I ever had was my eighth grade science class.  It was better than any class I ever took in high school or college, and it was almost entirely due to the teacher, Mr. Schmidt.  I'd never been a science guy, but I loved that he could make everything from introductory physics to aeronautics fascinating.  I loved how he treated us like we were smart unless we made the mistake of proving otherwise.  And I loved that on the very first day, when the resident class clown, Matthew Hurley, made one of his dopey comments, Mr. Schmidt told him, "You pick your ass up out of that chair and get out of my class.  Now." 

I never worked harder to succeed or to earn a teacher's approval then I did that year.  I looked forward to third period science every single day.  On the last day of class, I actually felt a little choked up when I walked out and said to him, "Keep teaching like you are, Mr. Schmidt."

I never had another class like Mr. Schmidt's.  And that's my fault.  I could have had them, but I never sought out teachers or classes whose reputations sounded like they might duplicate that experience for me.  I just assumed that how much you like a class or a teacher is all about the luck of the draw.  What a mistake. 

What has your best academic experience been, the one class that you actually looked forward to attending every single day.  What made it so great?  Was it because of the subject matter?  Because the teacher was so great?  Because you fed off the sense of competition, or the class discussion, or the opportunity to be pushed to work harder than you thought you could? 

Maybe it was a combination of all of those things.  But whatever it was, I encourage you to think about it, identify what made it special, and then make it your personal academic mission to duplicate it as many times as possible throughout high school and college.

It may not feel like it now, but you're in charge of your academic experience.  You can pursue subjects that interest you.  You can seek out teachers with great reputations.  You'll get to choose your college and your classes and your major.  When you do, think about your best academic experiences and whether or not these choices will create more of them. 

Why not try to create academic experiences that you look forward to every day, every semester, and every year? 

Not all quitters are created equal

Quitters often get a bad rap.

You've probably heard this advice:  "Whatever you do, never give up.  Don't be a quitter." 

But you've probably also heard the advice, "Find what you love to do.  Pursue your passions."

How can anyone possibly do both of those things simultaneously? 

We're conditioned to think that the only way to succeed, the only way to get ahead and achieve is to refuse to quit no matter what happens.  We're taught that success will come if we just keep going.

But if you follow that advice all the time, how are you supposed to find what you love to do?  It doesn't work.  And that's why a lot of the happiest, most successful people have quitting in their history. 

I'd like to propose that not all quitters are created equal.  There are good quitters and bad quitters. 

If you get one low grade on a math test and refuse to try anymore, you're a bad quitter.  You're giving up because something got difficult, and nobody who succeeds in life regularly gives up as soon as something gets challenging.  If you love being on the volleyball team but quit just because you didn't get picked as the starting setter, maybe you should have stayed and worked harder?  And if you quit your part time job just because you don't like the way your boss gets mad when you show up late, you really have some lessons to learn about the way the work world functions. 

But there are also good quitters.  

Good quitters quit the right things at the right times.  They can recognize when something they're involved in isn't bringing them any happiness or fulfillment.  They can sense when an activity, a job, a project, or a relationship isn't going anyplace successful or productive.  They'd rather spend their time on something with more potential.  So they quit and move on.  And they don't beat themselves up about it.

One of our former Collegewise students was a standout football player at his high school.  But he quit right before the start of his junior year.  Football wasn't making him happy.  In fact, it was making him miserable.  And he had been grinding through it just because he didn't want to be a quitter. 

But as he told us, he came to the realization that he simply longer wanted to do something in which he was regularly "congratulated for trying to take someone's head off."  He wanted to be doing other things that he thought would make him happier.  So he quit, joined a steel drum band at his high school, and started volunteering at his church.

He went on to attend and graduate from Notre Dame.  They didn't mind him being a (good) quitter.  

Here's the most important characteristic that distinguishes good quitters from bad quitters; bad quitters want to quit so just they can stop doing something.  Good quitters want the opportunity to do something else, something better for them, something they really want to throw themselves into, something that might even be harder.

For good quitters, it's not about getting more time to sleep or watch TV.  They quit because they've got bigger goals, not smaller ones. 

Quitters never win?  I don't buy that.  Bad quitters might never win.  Good quitters win all the time.

So don't be afraid to quit.  Be afraid of being a bad quitter.

What could your teachers say about you?

If every one of your teachers had to write a letter today to your future colleges telling them about you, what could they say?

  • Would they be able to say that you make contributions to class discussions?
  • Would they be able to say that you are nice and respectful to them and to the other students?
  • Would they be able to say that you seem to care as much or more about learning the material as you do in earning a good grade?
  • Would they be able to say that you ask intelligent questions?
  • Would they be able to say that you bring enthusiasm and cheer to the class, even if you're not the best student in the room?
  • Would they be able to say that they'd like ten more students just like you in the class?
  • Would they be able to say that you seem excited and well-suited for college?

What would you have to do to get all of your teachers to say these things about you?  What do you think would happen if you did it?

Is it true that, “It never hurts to ask”?

"It never hurts to ask."  I'm not so sure that's true. 

I think whether or not it hurts to ask depends on the question, and even more importantly, it depends on the way you ask.

Imagine
you approach your teacher ten days before college application deadlines
and blurt out, "Can you write me a letter of recommendation for
college?"  What are the chances that your teacher is going to feel good
about that question?  You're obviously not very organized.  You're
making your teacher pay for your disorganization by asking so late, and
you don't seem to feel badly about it at all.  What if you've also
never seemed too interested in the subject matter and you spent a lot
of time yawning in her class?  What if this is the first time you've
ever tried to have a conversation with this teacher?  Doesn't it hurt
to ask now?

What would have made that question a better one?

You
could have spent the duration of the course earning the right to ask. 
You could have been an engaged student who didn't just work hard, but
also seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter.  You could have
said, "Hi" to that teacher in the hallway.  You could have given a lot
of thought as to why your work in this teacher's class is worthy of a
recommendation.  You could have respected the teacher's time by
approaching her earlier, and by asking if it would be OK to schedule an
appointment at a time that would be convenient for her to discuss your
college applications. 

And instead of blurting out the
question, you could have had a real conversation with the teacher about
your work in the class, what you hope to study in college, and why you
were hoping she could share your story with the colleges in a
recommendation.   

It takes a lot of work to earn the right to
ask, to invest the time and energy to build a connection like that. 
But whether you're asking for a favor, a raise, some assistance, an
opportunity, or some advice, putting the work in ahead of time makes it
a mutually beneficial exchange.

It never hurts to ask right