As a fun almost-back-to-school diversion, I’d like to try something new here. For the next month or so, I’ll be answering a question every week from a blog reader. The question form is here if you’d like to submit one for consideration. Anything goes, but questions that are too specific to one particular student aren’t likely to get selected unless there’s a broader application for other readers.
Between the day I left for college and the day I arrived home for my December holiday break, I had almost no communication with anyone I’d gone to high school with. Unless we were willing to place an expensive long-distance phone call or write a good old-fashioned letter, we all had to wait until December to reconvene in our hometown and swap college stories. Until that time, each of our experiences was our own. The only frame of comparison was our fellow students on our respective campuses, not our friends spread out at colleges across the country.
Times are different for today’s college freshmen. With email, text, and social media, everyone is experiencing college together—virtually. It’s a great way to see what your old friends are up to, and even to stay in closer touch with those people you’d rather have more meaningful exchanges with than just the occasional comment on a posted photo. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to make you feel terrible about your own college experience.
When you scroll through social media feeds of nothing but positive reports and renderings from college campuses, yet you’ve got a roommate you don’t connect with, or classes that haven’t inspired you yet, or a campus social scene where you’ve yet to find your place, you might feel like you’re doing college wrong while everyone else is doing it right. It’s even worse if you start second-guessing your choice of where to spend these next four years.
New college freshmen, please remember two things. First, much of what you see and read about your friends’ experiences at college is just advertising. Many are posting the carefully selected share-worthy moments that don’t necessarily reflect the entirety of their experience. Second, while some people experience college bliss from the moment they move into their dorm, many more do not.
Looking back, was your first week or month or even semester of high school representative of the entire four-year experience? Probably not. And your earliest college experiences won’t be, either. A great college experience is the sum of four years that will include lots of ups and downs, successes and failures, good fortune and tough breaks. Believe it or not, all of those things contribute to what makes college such a learning, growing, and even flat-out-fun period of your life. In fact, that’s not just college, that’s life. And you deserve to reap all the great rewards and memories of it without the impression that you’re the only one for whom the ride is occasionally bumpy.
So many of today’s college freshmen have spent the last four years or more working towards and dreaming about what’s been promised to be the best, most fulfilling, most transformative experience of their lives. For most of you, it will be just that when you look back on it. But please don’t despair if it doesn’t seem to be happening for you on week one, semester one, or in some cases even year one. Relieve yourself of the pressure of expecting that every day should be your best day. Instead, focus on things you can control—your effort, your initiative, your willingness to treat every day of college as an opportunity to go out and make something of it as opposed to sitting back and waiting for that something to come to you.
Spend enough days doing those things and it will start to add up. Over time, you’ll have plenty to love—and share—about college.
College will be great. But great things take time to make.
I still remember one of the questions I was asked during my interview for a position as a summer orientation program coordinator during my senior year of college.
What do you think will be the most challenging part of being an orientation coordinator?
I was ready for this one. It was something I’d thought about a lot and was hoping I’d get the chance to talk about.
The short version of my answer: Deciding which parts of the program we should change to look for newer, better ways of doing things, and which parts we should keep the same.
That program had been thriving for nearly 20 years, with a rich history and a long line of traditions that meant something to people. Plenty of smart, successful coordinators had come before. Clearly, they’d done a lot right. And it felt pretty arrogant to suggest that any part of the program needed a complete overhaul.
But I also knew promising only to repeat everything, unchanged and unimproved, was no way to get any job worth having. The hiring committee didn’t just want the program to duplicate itself year after year. They wanted progress– new and better ways to serve the program’s mission of helping incoming students feel welcome and prepared for college.
I genuinely believed that striking that balance of honoring the old and embracing the new would be challenging, but that the right people for the job would embrace that opportunity. I can’t say for sure whether or not that was the answer they were looking for, but I did get the job. And my fellow coordinators and I spent the next nine months deciding where to innovate with what would be new and honoring what was already old.
Students, teachers, and counselors, as you head back to school and assume your positions in offices, classrooms, teams, clubs, organizations, and other constituencies, where will you innovate to find the new, and what will you keep unchanged by honoring the old?
There’s no easy, right answer to this. But here’s a good place to start. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is not honoring the old and is often an insufficient reason to stay the same. Unless it’s followed by something compelling like…
…and everyone has been thrilled with the results
….and we’ve yet to find something that promises to work that well
…and it’s at the core of who we are and what we stand for
…and the stakes are just too high to experiment with something unproven
…then it might be time to try some innovating.
I think the smartest, most strategic decision a senior can make during the month of August is to choose between two paths for the next four weeks before school starts:
1. Go all in and work like your hair is on fire.
2. Check out, relax, and recharge as much as possible.
Depending on who you are and how you’ve spent your summer, either one can be a really smart decision.
College applications are staring you in the face. And when school starts, you’ll be balancing those with your classes, activities, standardized testing, and other commitments. It’s all doable and seniors get through it every year. But it won’t be easy. So what’s the best August choice for you?
If you’ve had fun this summer, if you’ve enjoyed some days to sleep in, if you’ve spent time with your friends and had your fun and realistically aren’t suffering from any lingering burnout, I’d recommend the go-all-in option. Make it your personal mission to do as much college application-related work before school starts. You may feel like you’re getting cheated out of your final month of summer. But the work will have to get done either way. And I simply cannot imagine a scenario as you progress through the fall when you’ll say, “I really wish I hadn’t gotten such a head start on all this during the summer.”
But maybe your summer hasn’t been all that relaxing. Maybe you’ve had a part- or full-time job. Maybe you’ve been doing intensive test prep. Maybe you’ve been doing reading for AP classes, or volunteering 30 hours a week, or fulfilling other obligations and responsibilities without much opportunity to bask in the traditional lazy days of summer. If so, pick option 2, the one that lets you make the choice to fill your gas tank as much as possible for the remainder of the summer.
The worst path is to either fail to make a choice at all, or to pick one and not commit to it. So think carefully about this. Be honest with yourself about how you’ve spent your summer, and which road will realistically put you on the best path to success. Then make your choice.
Bonus tip: Tell your parents which choice you’ve made, why you’ve made it, and what commitments you’re willing to make to ensure your choice delivers the maximum benefit. It may not be the choice they’d recommend. But if you’re thoughtful, deliberate, and communicative, you’ll at the very least demonstrate that you’re thinking ahead and taking your college applications seriously.
Seniors, there’s no wrong answer, but you’ve got to pick one. Time to make your August choice.
I worked at a test prep company in my first job out of college. And one of the most memorable people I met at that job was Vic, the UPS guy.
We received 5-10 shipments of materials every week, so Vic visited our office a lot. Every time he did, he would burst in with a smile and greet every single one of us by name. And he’d banter joyfully with all of us.
Somebody better help you answer all those calls, Tracy!
Paul, look at that shirt! Where can I get me a shirt like that?
Adam, why are you getting so many packages? What are you, Santa Claus in here?
I was crossing the street, heading back from the coffee shop one afternoon, when Vic turned the corner in his brown UPS truck. He jokingly gunned the gas and headed right for me before he safely passed by and yelled out the window, “Almost gotcha, Kevin!”
When we put a bulletin board on our office wall with photos of all 120 staff members and teachers who worked for us, it took just one day for Vic to say, “Hey, I gotta get my picture up there!” That request was immediately and enthusiastically fulfilled. Vic felt like part of our work family. He belonged on the board.
But the most incredible thing about Vic is that he seemed to do this with every office he delivered to. There were dozens of buildings with hundreds of offices to visit within a four-block radius. And whenever I saw Vic darting to and from his truck, he was joyfully connecting with everyone he came across along the way, always using their names, just like he did with our office staff.
I still remember the day that Vic shared the news he was retiring at the end of the month. After delivering to that same professional neighborhood for 30 years, he’d decided it was time for him and his wife to load up the Winnebago and hit the open road together for six months. He was excited, but everyone in our office was crestfallen.
We loved Vic. All those long days when the phones and the work and the stress just wouldn’t stop, Vic always seemed to lighten the mood and lift us up. We knew how much we were going to miss him. And I already felt bad for the poor replacement who had to step into Vic’s shoes at the end of the month.
There was nothing special, unique, or indispensable about Vic’s role. UPS could have filled that job with a thousand other drivers who would have performed the responsibilities of the job as well as or better than he did.
But Vic brought magic to that regular role. Every day, he put on a show. He leaned in. He showed up with energy and enthusiasm. He found a way to deliver his unique gifts along with his UPS packages. I can’t recall the name of a single other delivery person who’s come to my door. But I’ll never forget Vic. And there are dozens and dozens of people who worked in the 92612 zip code in the mid 90’s who feel exactly the same way.
Vic didn’t have more responsibility or authority than any other UPS employee. But while there were a thousand employees who could deliver those packages, there was only one Vic. To us, he was irreplaceable.
What’s your personal version of Vic? How could you bring so much effort, emotion, caring, trust, energy, art, etc. that you’d make that kind of impact on the people you interact with every day?
You may not do the same things that Vic did. But whatever role you’re playing, you’ll be a lot more effective, memorable, and indispensable if you bring a little magic to it.
At the conclusion of our holiday break during our freshman year of college, my roommate Craig and I packed our duffel bags into his 1986 Toyota Celica and set off from our homes in the San Francisco Bay Area to return to our dorm at UC Irvine. The driving directions to do so looked something like this:
1. Take the 5 Freeway South for 500 miles.
2. Exit at Culver and turn right.
And we still managed to get lost.
About halfway to our destination, one of us suggested a possible shortcut. I don’t recall who came up with that bright idea, but I do remember us both embracing it enthusiastically. 90 minutes later, we were still so turned around on side streets that we had absolutely no idea where we were. By the time we got back to the freeway and resolved to literally and figuratively stay the course, we’d lost almost two hours of time. The illusive pursuit of a magical, undiscovered shortcut proved fruitless, which wasn’t surprising. Thousands and thousands of drivers had driven that route before us. If a better path existed, it would no longer have been a secret.
I would never tell a family to plod through the college admissions process like a laborious chore that just needs to be endured. There are both effective and ineffective ways to manage this time, and you can save yourself a lot of frustration and wasted effort by being thoughtful and seeking the right advice. When other people tell you that applying to college is stressful, difficult, demoralizing, etc., it’s likely that their approach—not the process itself—is what’s causing those problems.
But while you might hear that someone was admitted to their dream college because they applied under an obscure major, or connected with an admissions officer over email, or took some other seemingly simple but previously undiscovered shortcut to get there, like the long stretch of 5 freeway connecting Northern and Southern California, there is no universally foolproof, easier, faster way. If there were, someone would have discovered it already, plenty of others would have followed, and the secret would by now be the norm.
If you accept the reality that there is no secret passageway to the college of your dreams, you can stop the fruitless search that will only lead you to dead end side streets. Pick the right destinations for you, get good directions ahead of time, then stay the course.
The next time you attend a class, show up to work, counsel a student, etc., imagine you and your cohorts were being silently observed and evaluated all day by a committee whose job was to decide who made the biggest impact that day. The best part? The winner gets a one million dollar prize.
Would you slouch through that class without raising your hand?
Would you do what’s asked at work, but nothing more?
Would you explain away a student’s concern about her college essay in a rush to get to your next appointment?
Not if there were a million dollars on the line. You’d spend the entire day leaning in, looking for ways to do better and to contribute more, to help not just yourself get ahead, but also those around you. After all, if you’re being measured on impact, why limit it to yourself? Spreading your best, most generous efforts around makes your impact grow, too.
What would happen if you spent today as if a million dollars were on the line? What if you did it again tomorrow? What if you made it a habit?
Imagine how things might change if your default were to show up as if a million dollars were on the line. There’s no playbook for being successful. But it’s hard to see how you could ever go wrong with this strategy.
“Just showing up” can have both positive and negative connotations.
When parents go to back-to-school night, when a student attends the extra help sessions their calculus teacher offers at lunch, when a counselor stays late at a conference because the last session offered just might help their students, just showing up is everything. You didn’t have to be there. There’s no guarantee that showing up will actually help you. But because you care enough, because you’re invested in the outcomes, you’re there. Once you’ve opted to clear that hurdle, you’re likely to do what you need to do to make that decision pay off in some way. Just showing up is the hard part.
But when a parent spends most of their son’s football game scrolling through their phone, when a student sits listlessly in their English class waiting for the sweet release of the bell, when a counselor begrudgingly attends an in-service day and generates more eye-rolls than they do notes, you’re there, but you’re not invested. And if you’re there out of obligation, just showing up is the easy part.
Which kind of just showing up are you doing?
What if the next time you toured a college, or attended a college’s presentation at your school, or visited a college fair, you asked the school’s representative to tell you a story about something that happens at that college that would not happen anywhere else?
Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant advises that job applicants ask potential employers this question about their workplaces, and I thought it was just genius. An employer (or a college) can’t duck that question with a long list of generalities. To really answer it, they’ll need to tell you a story about something specific that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.
“You get a lot of interaction with professors here.” Not a good answer. You can get that at plenty of other schools, too.
“For 20 years at the beginning of every finals week, our Nobel Prize-winning chemistry professor has cooked breakfast for her students at her house. Her banana nut pancakes are absolutely legendary on campus. Students who aren’t even chemistry majors ask if they can attend just to taste for themselves.”
Now you’ve got something specific.
P.S. Good lesson for college essays, too.
Not with Grandma and Grandpa, not with a trusted babysitter we—and he—knew, but a group environment with 30 other 2-7 year-olds he’d never met, supervised by adults who’d only learned his name just minutes before.
As we were leaving, we looked back to see him across the playground waving good bye to us from the sandbox, knowing he would spend the nine hours there in the care of people we, too, had just met. I swear I felt like we were abandoning him and that Child Protective Services would soon be investigating us.
I’ve spent every day of the last eight years writing about—among other things—the need for parents to step back and support their kids without hovering. And I’ve spent every day of the last two-and-a-half years seeing for myself just how hard that can be to do. It feels good to know that our kids are under our watchful eyes, protected from disappointment and failure and discomfort. And there are times when loving them unconditionally does in fact mean providing a certain amount of cover from things they just aren’t yet equipped to handle. That’s why we hold our toddlers’ hands when they cross the street.
But as our babies become toddlers, toddlers become children, and children become teenagers, the best thing we can do in support of our kids is to regularly let go of those hands so our kids can live, experience, and learn for themselves, not to put them in harm’s way, but to put them in life’s way. It’s not easy. It might not even feel like good parenting at the time. But it’s exactly what our kids need from us, whether they’re attending a day camp or completing a college application.
When we arrived back at the day camp at 5 p.m., our boy ran across the playground to greet us, full of stories of snacks and naps and everything else he’d just experienced.
I told him it sounded like he’d had a good day. And he replied, “Yeah. It was a big day!”
We’ve got to let them have their big days, even if those are some of the hardest days for us.