Would you want yourself there?

If you were your English teacher, would you want you in class?  

I don't mean that as some weird philosophical question.  I mean, try to put yourself in your teacher's place and imagine what it would be like to teach the current, high school version of you.  Would you want yourself in the class? 

If you were your baseball coach, would you want yourself on the team?

If you were the editor of the school paper or the drama teacher or the director of the non-profit where you volunteer, would you be happy to have yourself involved? 

If after careful consideration, the answer is, "Yes," why is that?  Whatever the answer is, do more of it.

If you'd want yourself in class because you really love English, you ask great questions, and you're always respectful of other students' opinions, accentuate those strengths as much as you can.

If you really wouldn't want yourself in class because you look bored, you never participate, and you complain about your grades even though you know you could have worked harder, then good for you–you were honest with yourself, which is not an easy thing to do.  Now decide how to minimize those qualities.  

This isn't about changing yourself to be what everybody else wants you to be.  But people who can see themselves through other peoples' eyes are a lot more self-aware.  They're more in touch with their strengths and what they can bring to a class, team or organization.  They understand their weaknesses and how to minimize them. 

And they tend to be people that others want in classes, on teams, in groups, etc. 

Play favorites

Playing favorites isn't always a bad thing.  It's actually one of the best ways to get into college.

Every happy, motivated, successful high school student should have a favorite:

1.  Class, subject and teacher…

2.  Activity…

3.  Thing you do for fun that has absolutely nothing to do with getting into college…

4.  Person you admire…

5.  Quality about yourself…

If you don't have favorites in any of those categories, it's time to find them.  Make changes now–to what you're studying, what you're doing, how you're doing it, or with whom.  Take charge of your academic, extracurricular and social life.  You don't have to just accept whatever you have now.

Once you find your favorites, play to them.  Work like crazy in your favorite subject or to impress your favorite teacher.  Throw yourself into your favorite activity and really make an impact.  If you play the guitar just for fun, relish that time you get to spend doing it and make sure you keep it relaxing and rewarding.  Find a way to learn even more from the person you admire, either by working with, spending time with, or reading more about him or her.  And whatever your favorite quality is about yourself, be proud of it and put it to good use.

Nobody likes every class, every activity, every person or every little thing about yourself.  But finding your favorites and then playing to them is one of the best ways to stand out.

On texting while you work

Seth Godin has a great post today about why you shouldn't text while working.  He's directing it at the professional world, but if you're a high school student who wants to go to college, I think it applies to you, too.  


You're competing against people in a state of flow, people who are truly committed, people who care deeply about the outcome. You can't merely wing it and expect to keep up with them. Setting aside all the safety valves and pleasant distractions is the first way to send yourself the message that you're playing for keeps."

An easy way to get extra emotional credit

Sure, you only get a little credit for ignoring a call or text message when you're in the middle of talking or meeting with someone.  But when you divert your attention to look down to check your cell phone, it's like telling that person, "Wait, this might be more important than you are."  And if you take the call or respond to the message, well, it's clear who won the face off.

If you want to get extra emotional credit, turn the phone off and tell the person that you're doing it.

If a kid sits down with us at Collegewise and says, "Before we get started, I'm going to turn my phone off," he goes up a couple notches in our book.  It's like he's telling us, "This meeting is important to me–everybody else can wait for the next hour."

Please don't tell me that you have to be reachable all the time.  Unless you're on the transplant list, no seventeen year old needs to be reachable all the time.

So the next time you visit a teacher to ask for help, or go see your counselor, or have a conversation with a friend who needs your advice, or meet with your tutor, say, "I'm going to turn off my phone" and then do it.

Not a bad way to start your college interviews either, by the way. 

A new way for teens to stand out

14 year-old Allison Miller sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month (and no, this is not the "new way to stand out" that I'm suggesting).  While she may the exception, the article goes on to describe just how many digital interruptions teenagers face today, and how the constant need to multi-task is affecting their work.

I see a huge opportunity for teens here, one that if you capitalized on could give you a real college admissions advantage.  If you'd be willing to turn off the interruptions regularly, you could become a teen who can get a lot of great work done in a short period of time.  Not many teens can do that today. 

What if you became the only one of your friends who turned off your phone and internet for however long it took for you to get your work done every day?  How much less time would it take to study and do your homework?  How much better would your work be?  How much more time would you have for doing other things while other teens are busy being interrupted?

20 years go, you wouldn't stand out just because you could get a lot of work done in a short period of time.  But that's all changed, and I think the smart teens will take advantage of it.

Don’t abandon your ambition–redefine it.

Does being an ambitious student mean you have to make yourself miserable to achieve your goals?  I don’t think it does, and neither does Cal Newport.

Cal’s latest blog post about college admissions argues that ambition is a good thing; if you work hard and stand out, you’ll have more interesting opportunities (colleges, jobs, promotions, etc.).  But if your workload leaves you stressed, sleep-deprived and miserable, you’re going to miss out on a lot of those great opportunities.  This is the mistake a lot of high school students make.  Their attitude is that if they can just survive their brutal workload and get accepted to their dream school, they'll be set for life.  This survivalist mindset is short-sighted and unsustainable.  The happiest and most successful students are the ones who find a way to pursue their ambitions without sacrificing their happiness. 

There are lots of ways to find and maintain that balance (both my blog and Cal’s give you lots of suggestions for how to do it).  But Cal’s most important assertion here is that high school and the college admissions process are the perfect time for students to learn this valuable skill of finding and achieving balance in their lives. 

He’s not arguing that you abandon your ambitions and neither am I.  He’s just arguing that some students should consider redefining them. 

A $50,000 scenario for high school students

High school students, imagine this scenario:

You just got word that you have two hours to complete a five-page paper in which you describe your high school experience and dispense advice for incoming high school freshmen.  If you finish it within the allotted time, your essay will be evaluated by a reader.  And if it's good enough, you'll win $50,000. 

Obviously, you'd take the challenge.  But given the stakes, what additional steps would you take to make sure you got it done on time and that the paper was as good as you could make it?

  • Would you tell your family you need to be undisturbed for the next two hours?
  • Would you turn off your phone?
  • Would you close out your email and your IM and your Facebook page?
  • Would you find a different place to go where you were absolutely sure you could work in peace, like the library?
  • Would you concentrate intensely for the entire two hours and set aside everything else until the paper is done?

I bet you would.

So, why not do those things when you study or do your homework?   

A good source for study tips and test-taking advice

I've shared Cal Newport's blog here before but wanted to point something specific out about it.

Make sure you check the sidebar at the right under the heading, "Looking for Help on A Specific Problem?"  There, you'll find his blog posts categorized into subjects like, "Fighting procrastination," "Note-taking," "Organization," "Studying," "Test-taking," and "Time Management."

Some of his material is dense and takes awhile to get through.  But if you apply the tips he gives you, I think you'll find his advice is always helpful. 

How to handle “No”

I once received an email from an editor who'd submitted her resume for a job opening at Collegewise, and she did everything but call me an idiot for deciding not to interview her.  When she demanded to know my reasons, I pointed out the typos in her resume.  She apologized, but when you handle rejection that badly, it's over for the other party.

I've written before about how kids can handle college rejections.  But we all face the risk of hearing "No."  When a student applies for a summer job, he might hear a "No."  When a private counselor is being interviewed by a prospective family, the family might ultimately say, "No" and choose someone else.  Independent high schools and colleges hear "No" all the time from students they accepted who ultimately choose to learn someplace else. 

When you hear "No," you've got a choice to make.  You can voice your disagreement. You can criticize the other party's decision making process.  You can get angry, point out every reason why they're making a mistake, and appeal for reconsideration (which almost never works).

Or you could look at it as an opportunity to leave them singing your praises.

You could sincerely thank them for their consideration and for the time they invested in you.  You could praise their decision and tell them that while you're disappointed, you can certainly understand why they made the choice they did.  You could tell them what you learned during the process and what you're going to do differently as a result of it.  And most importantly, you could let them know that you'll still be around if they ever need you in the future. 

The second approach leaves a much better chance of you getting invited back for a new opportunity (or if the choice they made falls through).  You'll leave a great last impression, one that just might lead to them to recommend you to a friend or colleague who might be a better fit.  And you'll actually feel better.

How you handle a "No" says a lot about you.  And it improves your chances of getting a "Yes" in the future.

How to deal with trolls

I get an email about once a month from the same person to tell me how wrong I am about something I've written here.  He never signs his full name.  He's not asking for an explanation or for any kind of dialog.  He just wants to vent.  I know the anger actually has nothing to do with me.  So I read them, delete them and move on with my day.     

The more you put yourself out there to the world, the more likely you are to run into trolls.  Disagreement by itself isn't necessarily bad and can actually lead to a better understanding for both parties.  But trolls do more than just disagree with you.  They take a perverse pleasure in tearing you and your ideas down.   

Find any popular blog or a video on YouTube, and there are always scathingly critical comments no matter how many people post about how much they love it.

If you want to start a club or suggest a new theme for the homecoming dance or try out for the basketball team, somebody may dismiss it as a bad idea or flat out make fun of you. 

The more a high school counselor or a private counselor interacts with students and parents, the more likely the counselor will run into a few who are pre-disposed to disagree with the advice or to be unhappy with the efforts.

Successful people ignore the trolls.  They know that trolls are always out there and they're almost never creating anything great on their own; that's why trolls have so much time and energy to criticize you. 

You have to ignore the trolls.  If you don't, you'll spend all your time hiding.  You'll be afraid to write a blog or try a new idea or do anything that could open yourself up to criticism. 

Not everyone is going to appreciate you.  But those who do deserve your mental energy and time more than the trolls do.