What will you do in the off-season?

Professional athletes have an off-season. Their bodies and minds couldn’t sustain a year-round practice and game schedule without time to rest and recover. At season’s end, they embrace the downtime, the chance to be free of the competitive pressure that comes with constantly moving from one practice and game to the next. Yes, they may work on aspects of their game and get in shape for the coming season. But they also understand that if they don’t seize the opportunity for rest, they’ll never be game-ready for the on-season.

In the unnecessarily escalating arms race of college admissions, summer has taken on a new meaning for many kids. Instead of welcoming the no-more-pencils approach that once signaled an off-season, for many students summer is now like its own semester, with study and prep and activities that fill the hours and the days.

It’s healthy to stay productive during the summer. Spending three months doing nothing but sleeping in and watching YouTube videos isn’t a compelling experience for even the most enthusiastic of off-season embracers. But a student whose summer days are just a string of practices, tutors, rehearsals, etc. is like an athlete without an off-season. It’s unsustainable for even the most driven.

Students, make sure to balance summer productivity with healthy doses of rest, friends, and frivolity. There isn’t a single college that would want you to spend every waking summer second increasing your competitive advantage. In fact, you’ll be even more prepared at game time if you embrace the spirit of the off-season.

Writing is the power to persuade

Seth Godin shares some great insight in his latest post, reminding us that good writing is “organized thinking on behalf of persuasion,” a powerful skill available to anyone willing to develop it.

“Writing is your opportunity to stand out, to pitch in and to make a difference. And you don’t need a permit or equipment. You don’t need an insider’s edge, or money either. Writing may be the skill with the highest return on investment of all. Because writing is a symptom of thinking.”

One great email

My brother has been searching for a dog-walker to take over summer strolling duties with his canines. And he forwarded me an email he received from a high school student interested in the gig.

Everything, from the subject line, to the tone, to the information provided, was pitch-perfect. She introduced herself. She explained her interest and her availability. She expressed a desire to meet my brother and his dog at a convenient time—everything that an introductory email from an interested job candidate should be. As my brother told me:

“I loved the quick response and enthusiasm. Clearly she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make sure she gets the job.”

And no surprise, he hired her.

To be fair, I’d count this entire skillset as one of the rare places where kids today have actually fallen a step behind kids of yesterday. When I was in high school, the only way for teens to have taken advantage of an opportunity like this would have been to pick up the phone, call the adult, and do everything this student did in her email. Most parents would not have taken over that step lest their student be out of the running for any position of responsibility. We interacted with adults. Even those of us with paper routes growing up had to go door to door just to collect our money from the customer.

Times have changed, but they’ve also presented a wonderful opportunity for kids and their parents.

Students today can stand out by showing the initiative to seek out an opportunity. They can make an impression by clearly communicating. They can ask intelligent questions about the opportunity and demonstrate that they can be trusted with the responsibility. Actions like that make an even bigger impression today than they did when I was a teenager. Best of all, those skills will bring them more opportunities of interest, help them get into college, and develop the skills they’ll need to be successful once they’ve walked out from under their roofs.

That’s the kind of learning this dog walker has secured for herself. And it all happened because of one great email.

For colleges: three ways to improve your FAQs

The ease of electronic communication makes it easy for interested students to fire off questions to college admissions offices, and most responders are happy to give good information in return (especially when the question comes from the student, not the parent). But it can become a grind for the staff when the same questions come up over and over again, particularly when the answers are easily located with a cursory read of the website. If you work for a college that offers an FAQ section or are considering penning one to include on your website, here are three tips to help you help students, and to give you some relief from the relentlessly repeated questions.

1. Poll the answerers
If the goal is to preemptively answer the most frequently asked questions, make sure the questions you select are actually frequently asked. The best way to do that is to poll the staff members who’ve spent the most time actually answering the inquiries. Just ask, “What three questions do you answer most repeatedly?” My guess is that they’ll answer without even having to think about the response. And those topics deserve a spot on the FAQ page.

2. Make a top ten list
A section with 50 FAQs is great quantity. But it also invites impatient web visitors to abandon the FAQ and revert back to email. Instead, make a top ten list and post it prominently. A link entitled “Here are the answers to the ten most frequently asked questions” will attract attention and subsequent clicks.

3. Explore each question in more depth over time
The questions are repeated for a reason—those asks are on the top of students’ minds. So give them more than just the short answer on the FAQ. Write a longer answer that provides context and explanations, and then post a link to the more detailed response. Share it on social media or on your admissions blog. You’ll be giving students more in-depth information about the topics they’re most interested in, and doing so at times when those students are most likely to need the guidance.

He said it himself

From The Atlantic:

“The new SAT does not tell students or anyone else how smart students are, or how capable they are of learning new things.”

David Coleman
CEO of the College Board (the company who administers the SAT)

Let the child drive the bus

Some parents resist the urging of both counselors and colleges to step back and let their kids drive their own college application process. And that’s why Patrick O’Connor identifies “Let the child drive the bus” as the six words about college that disappoint parents most.

I understand the parental inclination to nudge, direct, and sometimes overtake decision-making powers from our children (my four-year-old would enjoy a lot more videos and popsicles if he were driving his own bus all day, every day). But whatever argument a parent might make to justify their over-participation in their high school student’s journey to college, it doesn’t change that a college will never look favorably on a student whose parent completes the applications or does anything else that a college-ready student should be doing on their own.

As Patrick describes it:

“Your child didn’t become a state champion soccer player by having Mommy or Daddy kick the ball. Applying to college is no different.”

When the high stakes aren’t artificial

A New York Times opinion piece this week, “Let’s Hear It for the Average Child,” was initially just my kind of read. What a great reminder that kids who ride the bench, or who try but still earn C’s, or who draw, read, or write poetry instead of completing all their assigned homework all have their own gifts and magic to bring to the world regardless of what their GPAs and other high school standards of measurement may indicate. I liked the message. In fact, I’ve written plenty of similar posts for this blog.

But as it made the rounds in the social media circles of colleagues in the industry, several fellow counselors pointed out that there was a tone-deafness in the article that needed to be addressed. The truth is that the kids described in the piece are only able to fully enjoy that reassurance when they have the support and resources to sustain them until they find their way.

The student who doesn’t come from means, who’s relying on every penny of financial aid and scholarship money to attend college, cannot afford—literally or figuratively—to bomb her chemistry midterm because she stayed up all night counseling a heartbroken friend.

The student who works a job after school every day to help contribute money to his family doesn’t get the freedom of acting as the team’s equipment manager all season no matter how much valuable learning might take place.

The student who desperately wants to be the first in her family to attend college, but lacks the role models or the encouragement at home, doesn’t have the luxury of meandering her way through high school classes while enjoying her hobbies, friends, or just-for-fun pursuits.

Yes, there’s too much pressure in the college admissions process. Yes, we’re doing something wrong for kids when we send them the message that they have to excel in every class, every activity, every pursuit lest they be left behind. No matter what a student’s background or upbringing, that feels like an unsustainable and unfair expectation.

But the stakes are a lot higher for some kids than others. The answer to “What’s the worst that can happen to me?” looks very different for the student with unlimited support to fall back on than it does for the student who’s seeking upward mobility via education.

It was a helpful reminder for me that there are always areas for growth as professionals, even after being at this for twenty years and blogging every day for the last ten of them. In the four months I have left writing this blog, I’ll work to keep this new perspective in mind.

Much of the pressure around college admissions is due to artificially high—and often self-inflated—stakes. But the stakes aren’t artificial for everyone.

Starting early is the easier way

“Start your college applications over the summer.”

It’s one of the most common pieces of college application advice. I’ve preached it repeatedly here. It’s what we advise all of our Collegewise students to do. And when done right, it almost always leads to a less stressful, more successful college application process.

But that advice can actually exacerbate admissions-related stress.

There’s enough pressure surrounding college admissions. There are plenty of reminders that the process is more complex and confusing and competitive than it was when  parents applied to college. Now here’s yet another ask of kids, yet another scenario where they’re forced to choose between keeping up with or falling behind the competition. How can counselors who espouse college admissions sanity and perspective turn around and recommend that kids start sooner than the majority of other applicants will (or would even want to)?

Because there’s a different way to view that advice: Make it easier on yourself, not harder.

You’ll almost certainly have more available time and energy during the summer months than you will during the fall of your senior year. In early September, you’ll have your classes, assignments, activities and a host of other commitments. Your window of available hours each day and week to spend working on college applications will narrow considerably. And the deadlines will already be encroaching, particularly if you intend on applying to any early application programs. To start early is to make it easier on yourself.

Nobody is saying that you have to finish all your applications before you start school in the fall (unless you’re applying to rolling admissions schools, which are explained here). Some applications won’t even be available by then. But applying to college can be a big project. And like just about all big projects, the stress and sense of the workload can be reduced considerably when you give yourself more time to complete them. Starting early gives you that advantage.

So when your counselor, your parent, or anybody else advises you to start your applications early, resist the completely understandable urge to tell them to back off. It’s your summer and you do have every right to enjoy it. But try to reframe that piece of advice from one that pressures you to start early to one that encourages you to take the easier route.

Starting early doesn’t just help you submit better applications with less stress. It’s also the easier way to do things.

Injecting character, reducing distress

In 2013, the Harvard Graduate School of Education sponsored a project aimed at shifting the college admissions focus from that of a relentless, achieve-at-any-cost drive to one that both encourages and recognizes ethics, caring, and character. The result was their 2016 publication of “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions.”  Now, they’ve released “Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process.” The summary and full report are both available here.  Collegewise Director of Counseling, Casey Near, also pointed me to the “Resources for Families” section of their website. You won’t find advice there about how to get into Harvard or any other highly selective schools. But you will find a collection of articles and advice from experts to help your family regain some sense of balance and perspective in a process that all too often is lacking both.

Monday morning Q & A: advice for those headed to college?

Jody Asks:

“How about some high school graduation/off to college advice to share with students as they begin this new journey?”

Jody, I’ll cheat a little bit here and share a collection of past posts and a couple books that I think capture the best advice better than one all-inclusive post could.

First, a past post of mine highlighting some of the advice from Richard J. Light, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, on how to make the most of college.

One of my most read posts, “How to build a remarkable college career,” is here.

For those wondering about how to use college to prepare you for a job after graduation, check out the posts here and here.

And finally, MIT professor Cal Newport has authored two fantastic books on college success: (1) How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets from the Country’s Best Students, and (2) How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less.

The collection may not be as quick and easy to digest as one pithy post may have been. But I hope you find the quantity adds to the quality.

Thanks for your question, Jody. I’ll answer a different one next week. For those interested, you can submit yours here.