The same team

When you need assistance, guidance or advice, it's a good idea to ask for it a way that encourages both parties to work as one team.

If you're getting a "C" in your English class and you say to your teacher, "Why did you give me a 'C?'", you're immediately putting your teacher on the defensive.  His first inclination isn't going to be to do whatever he can to help you; he's going to gear up to defend the grade he's given you.  You asked the question in a way that divided you into two opposing teams.

I often see students and parents make this mistake during the college planning years.  A student gets a low grade on a big exam, so the parent fires off an email to the teacher demanding an explanation.  A student misses an "A" in a course by a few points and marches into the class to complain that the grade should be raised. A student isn't placed in an AP class so the parent calls the counselor to argue that this just isn't acceptable.    

I'm not arguing that students or parents shouldn't ask questions in these scenarios.  But you're the one who needs something in each of these situations.  So you have to ask in a way that encourages collaboration.  You've got to create one team. 

Here are a few steps that will help you do that.

1.  Leave your emotions out of it. 

There may be places or professions where bullies are the ones who get ahead, but education isn't one of them.  While you might be frustrated by the situation, your frustration or outright anger won't encourage collaboration.  It's much easier to find the desire to help someone who's nice and respectful.  So be nice.  Don't assign blame.  Leave your negative emotions at the door and try to work together.

2.  Acknowledge your role in the scenario.

There is almost always something you could have done to prevent or at least mitigate the situation that you're in.   So acknowledge it.  It doesn't necessarily mean you have to take the all the blame for something that wasn't entirely your fault.  But someone will be much more likely to help you if you own your responsibility.  

It sounds like this,

"I know my son really should have told us much earlier that he was struggling in your class.  If he had, we wouldn't be coming to you so late to discuss his performance."

"I know I did badly on my last three exams.  That was my fault.  I don't know why I'm just not getting trig."

"We knew the cut-off for entry into the AP course was to earn a B+ or higher in this year's class.  Our daughter didn't get the B+, and that certainly isn't anybody else's fault."    

3.  Ask for help, and be willing to do your part.

Demanding action keeps you on two teams.  Asking for help and showing that you're willing to participate in the process puts you on the same team.

"Do you have any recommendations for steps our son could take to improve his grade?"

"If I show you my tests, can you help me understand where I'm going wrong so I can do better next time?"

"Do have any suggestions of things our daughter could do to show the teacher that she's ready and able to take on the AP workload?"

This isn't a post about manipulating people to get them to do what you want (I promise you that none of this will work if that's what you're trying to do).  It's about taking responsibility for your education, seeking out assistance when you need it, and doing so in a way that treats people with respect.

The fewer teams, the better.

How to study less and get better grades

A lot of students who get high grades don't actually study harder than other students do; they just make the most of the time they are already in class.

Say you're in class an hour a day for each subject, 5 days a week.  If you have a math test every three weeks, you've already invested 15 hours of time just by being in class.  If you really used that time that you're sitting there, seriously, how much additional studying should you really have to do for the test?

Here's how smart students use class time.

  • Treat class time like study time.  I mean really pay attention.  Zero in while you're there.  Don't think about other things high school kids think about (at least, don't think about them while you're in trigonometry). 
  • Don't try to write down everything the teacher says.  Instead, just pay attention and think about what's being said, and write down only what's important.  Here's what's important…
  • Anything the teacher writes on the board is important.
  • Anything the teacher repeats, makes a big deal of, or emphasizes in any way–it's important.  It sounds like, “This was a crucial turning point for the United States in World War II!”
  •  Pay attention to verbal ticks and pet phrases.  I had an AP Government teacher in high school who used to love to say, "C'mon, folks.  You need to know this stuff!"  While other people were drooling on their desks, the smart kids wrote down everything that followed that pet phrase.  Do you know why?  Because it was always—and I mean always–on the test.  I don't even think the teacher knew his giveaway, but like good poker players, we weren't about to let him know we were onto him.
  • Anything your teacher discusses at great length is important.  If you're studying the Great Depression all week but spend two days on the reasons for the stock market crash, that's a tip. 
  • If your teacher goes to the trouble to make a handout, it's important.
  • If your teacher spends a lot of time talking about something that isn't mentioned anywhere in the textbook, it's important.

Before you study harder, work smarter while you're in class. 

The kid who pitches in

Teachers, counselors, coaches–they all love the kid who pitches in.

The kid who pitches in…

  1. …puts your hand up regularly to ask or answer a question in class.
  2. …makes traditional flan for the Spanish Club's fundraiser.
  3. …says "Thank you" after meetings with your counselor.
  4. …offers to help clean up after homecoming.
  5. …helps clear the table after dinner.
  6. …does community service because you want to do it.
  7. …says "Hi" to your teachers when you see them in the hallway.  
  8. …offers to help the kid in math class who obviously is struggling.
  9. …grabs as many soccer balls as you can and puts them in the bag when your coach calls an end to practice.
  10. …picks up the soda can on campus and throws it away.
  11. …sticks up for the social outcast at school.
  12. …drives your friends home when they've had too much to drink.
  13. …remembers your parents' birthdays.
  14. …tells your teacher when you're really enjoying the class.
  15. …helps other people stay positive.  
  16. …asks, "What can I do to help?"
  17. …cheers your friends on at the football games and the school musicals.
  18. …puts your hand up when someone says, "I need a volunteer…"
  19. …stays late after practice to run extra laps with the captain. 
  20. …asks the new kid in school how things are going so far. 

Colleges love the kid who pitches in, too.

Lost arts

I think every high school student would be well served to master these ten skills.

  1. How to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye, and introduce
  2. How to call someone you don’t know and articulately ask a question.
  3. How to write a thoughtful, appropriately composed and punctuated email that makes a good first impression.
  4. How to talk to adults comfortably.
  5. How to express thanks.
  6.  How to give praise.
  7. How to apologize and accept responsibility when something is your
  8. How to laugh at yourself.
  9. How to celebrate what you’re good at (and acknowledge what you’re not good at).
  10. How to rely less on your parents to do things you can do for yourself.

All ten can help you get into college, be successful once you get there, and even continue that success once you get out.

How many of them can you do?  How long would it take to master them all?

Rule of High School?

Seth Godin, a business book author whose blog I read, published this post comparing the business world to high school.  Here's an excerpt I thought kids should see.

"Any sufficiently overheated industry will eventually
resemble high school. High school is filled with insecurity, social climbing, backbiting,
false friends, faux achievements, high drama and not much content. Much of this
insecurity comes from a market that doesn't make good judgments, that doesn't
understand how to reliably choose between alternatives. So it turns into a
popularity contest…As in high school, the winners are the ones who don't take
it too seriously and understand what they're trying to accomplish. Get stuck in
the never ending drama (worrying about what irrelevant people think) and you'll
never get anything done."

It doesn't sound like a very fun high school world to live in.  If what he describes here resembles your current high school experience, remember that you don't have to play that game.  You can be the exception, not the rule.  You can reject that vision of high school and create one of your own. 

What if you were a high school kid who went against that description?  What if you made the conscious decision to be nice to everyone, not to worry about what other people think, to be yourself, to be confident, to reject the idea of popular vs. unpopular, to be proud of who you are and what you stand for, to do what you want rather than what other people say is cool, to make it more important that you be yourself than it is to be liked?

I'm not saying it's easy.  But some kids are doing it.  They're happier, more fulfilled and more confident, and they'll probably get accepted to lots of colleges.  If you are one of these kids, good job.  And if you'd like to be one, start today.

It's got to be easier than the alternative. 


How to be a good audience member

I do a lot of speeches for high school kids.  And I've noticed something about audience members.  If you sit up, pay attention, give me eye contact, and maybe even write some things down that I'm saying, it sends me a message.  It tells me that you're here because you want to be, that you've got your act together and that you're serious about getting in to college.  And it tells me that you're expecting something from me.  It makes me work even harder to make our time together worth your while.  I'll give you more attention.  I'm more likely to call on you when you ask a question.  I'll feel like you owe you something in return (because I do).    

This isn't a post about paying attention to me.  It's a post to remind high school kids that how you behave sends a message to the world.  If you look and act bored and disengaged, that's how the world is going to perceive you.  If you spend most of your time in your high school English class sending the teacher a message that you'd rather be just about anyplace else but there, what do you expect her to do when you ask her to write a letter of recommendation?  Or if you miss an "A" by 2% and ask if she can raise your grade?  Of if you ask her to read your college essay and help you edit it?  What motivation have you given her to go above and beyond for you?

The engaged get more attention, more help, and more effort in return than the disengaged do.  

Unsolicited Life Advice for Teens

We're not in the life-coaching business here at Collegewise.  But every now and then, we find ourselves passing along some life lessons to the teenagers whose college applications we're reviewing.  And like so many adults, we're life-qualified only because we've had the luxury of just being on the planet a little longer with more time to learn from those in-the-know.  So here are five totally unsolicited pieces of life advice for today's teens. 

1.  Learn how to shake hands well.

It's surprising how many people offer a handshake that resembles a lifeless salmon.  Those who do so might as well just go ahead and announce, "Hi. I have the personality of a lifeless salmon." 

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