Stop brainstorming, start brainwriting

From Inc.’s This Renowned Wharton Professor’s Best Leadership Advice: For the Love of God, Stop Brainstormingfeaturing renowned professor Adam Grant:

With 50 years of research available, leaders should be familiar with the perils of groupthink. When people go along to get along, originality suffers, potential threats are brushed aside, and disastrous decisions result. More effective, Grant says, is a process called “brainwriting,” in which everyone generates ideas on his or her own. Only once everything is on the table does the group evaluate it. “The wisdom of crowds mostly comes when you put people in separate rooms and get their judgment independently,” he says.

Something to consider the next time your club, organization, or department considers calling a meeting to brainstorm.

It’s all about the kids

After the school shooting in Florida this week, I was feeling something I hadn’t felt since 9/11—that writing, teaching, or even thinking about college admissions was somewhere between trivial and offensive in light of recent events.

On the evening of that fateful day in 2001, I couldn’t imagine giving my scheduled talk on college admissions at a local high school later that night. Who even cared about early decision and college essays and the art of application presentation? The world seemed to be falling down around us.

But because parents never get to stop being parents, it was my mom who reminded me that those kids were the future of our country, that it would be up to them to restore the safety and confidence in our country, and that there was nothing wrong with talking to them about college admissions on “a day like today,” as she put it. That’s typical of my mother. She spent 30 years as an English teacher at a public high school, every day of which she approached with the mantra that it was all about the kids. Whatever it took to reach, teach, reassure, and inspire, that’s what you do. For the kids.

And as usual, she was right. Those students showed up that night, and so did I.

There’s no pithy college admissions lesson to be extracted from a tragedy where 17 high school kids go to school one morning and never come home. But there just might be a reminder for all of us to keep things like SAT scores and class rankings and admissions decisions from prestigious colleges in perspective.

The world needs kids who will grow up to be kind, thoughtful human beings more than it does kids who proved they’ll relentlessly prep their way to higher test scores. It needs more kids who can lead responsibly, who will reach out to the person in crisis, and who seek out the thorniest, most challenging problems to solve a lot more than it does a student who plodded their way through community service hours just to add them to their resume.

Transcripts and class rankings and even college applications don’t encapsulate young people. When the adults in their lives reduce kids’ value to numbers, accolades, or which colleges say yes, we’re making their journey to adulthood all about their outcomes, not about the kids themselves. What really matters today and tomorrow is that they’re happy, healthy, good people.

Their future is also our future. And the stakes are too high not to make this time all about them.

What’s the point?

It’s Girl Scout cookie season, and this recent story about actress Jennifer Garner’s Instagram post (she’s pictured holding a sign selling the sweets) left me wondering, what’s the point of this exercise?

Is it to raise money for the Scouts?

Is it to give parents and kids an activity they can do together?

Is it to teach kids how to be confident, how to talk to adults, and even how to sell?

And does it really work if the argument is “all of the above”?

Adults can probably raise a lot more money for the Scouts than the girls can selling cookies (especially if that adult is a celebrity).

Parents peddling cookies to coworkers at the office are raising money, but unless the kids are at work with them, it’s not exactly a family activity.

And the best way to help kids be more confident representing themselves is to actually let them represent themselves, not to have Mom or Dad do it all for them.

Now, some might say that there doesn’t need to be a larger mission to this, that selling cookies is a nice tradition that teaches girls some lessons and provides an opportunity for even the busiest parents to involve themselves with something their daughters care about.

But someday soon, these Scouts will be in high school and preparing for the independence of college. And if those parents are slinging chocolate bars to raise money for the lacrosse team or the cheerleaders or the marching band because the kids are “just too busy,” it will be even more important to ask, “What’s the point?”

It starts with parents

It’s pretty clear that it’s not just the kids who have trouble sharing at the Seattle Children’s Museum.


A less stressful, more enjoyable college admissions process starts with parents stressing less and enjoying it more.

The formula works

There’s no magic formula for getting into college. But here’s a simple formula to measure the impact of how you’re spending your time:

What you help other people accomplish > What you accomplish

Individual accomplishments are great. Be proud of them and let that pride show when you list them on your college applications. And you shouldn’t spend all your time supporting everyone around you to the point that you sacrifice your own work or progress.

But when you can genuinely point to ways that you made your class, team, club, school, organization, part-time job, etc. better for the other people involved, when your contributions are so good that everyone else benefits, too, your impact—and your own fulfillment—increase exponentially.

And best of all, these contributions don’t have to involve more hours, more stress, or more time. They just involve you making the decision to do more than just show up, to instead bring the kind of attitude, energy, and care that changes the game for everyone.

Try it at your next class, practice, rehearsal, club meeting, or shift. Behave like it’s the last time you’re ever going to do it, and that however you behave this last time is how people will remember you forever. I’ll bet you bring a different you when you approach it that way.

The formula works if you apply it.

Is the sacrifice worth it?

The New York Times reports that the most popular class at Yale is “Psyc 157, Psychology and the Good Life.” This semester, 1200 students, more than one quarter of Yale’s undergraduate population, were enrolled in the class, which promises to teach students how to lead happier, more satisfying lives.

Why is the class so popular? Here’s the instructor’s explanation:

“Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called ‘the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.’ A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there.”

If high school students are sacrificing their health and happiness to gain admission to any school that ultimately accepts fewer than 10 of every 100 students who apply, it begs the question, is the sacrifice worth it?

Five fruitless college admissions tactics

After helping more than 10,000 students navigate the college admissions process, our counselors have an informed sense of what works and what doesn’t work when helping students get where they want to go. And we’ve noticed that some families spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on strategies that almost never work. Here are five of the most common.

1. Over-strategizing.
I define “over-strategizing” as spending too much time and energy looking for a way in than actually doing the work it takes to get in. Seeking the one major to apply under that will turn a dream college into a sure thing, relentlessly emailing admissions officers or faculty in the hopes that it will prove you’re interested, submitting lots of additional materials the college didn’t request with your application—all of these actions deflect your efforts away from the very things colleges actually care about. And those are almost always spelled out in the “Admissions” sections of colleges’ websites.

2. Angling to leverage connections.
This is a more specific version of #1, but is so rampant that it deserves its own mention. These families claim that they know someone who ostensibly “has a lot of pull” or is “on the board” (we’ve never seen this mythical board or just exactly who sits on it). But those purported connections often turn out to be an alumnus who is nowhere near influential enough to make a difference. For a connection to be an advantage usually requires that the school’s vital interests would be at stake were the student to be denied admission. If your parents just funded the new film school on campus or your dad just coached the football team to a national championship, your chances of getting in will probably increase substantially. But the fact that your parent’s coworker once went to school there and has offered to write you a letter of recommendation? We’ve never seen a connection like that make an admissions difference.

3. Focusing too much on other students.
The student you complain didn’t deserve to be let into the AP class you were shut out of? The catcher on the softball team you swear gets to start because her family knows the coach? The activity you don’t enjoy but joined because all the other high achievers seem to be doing it? Those are all examples of spending way too much time worrying about what other students are doing. You can’t control what they do, you can only control what you do. And one of my core tenets of college admissions planning is to relentlessly focus on the parts of the process you can control. I know that curved grades, class ranking, tryouts, and auditions all impose a metric that compares you to other students. But driving all your personal decisions in the same manner is a lousy way to direct your high school life, and an ineffective strategy for getting into college.

4. Considering too much information and advice from uninformed sources.
Lots of people who know little or nothing about how to get into college seem to have no problem doling out advice and purported insider information about how to do just that. If you repeatedly indulge those people, if you take their unsolicited information as admissions gospel, you’ll end up with a lot of conflicting recommendations, most or all of which will do nothing to help you get where you want to go. Admissions officers, high school counselors, and qualified private counselors are reliable, informed college admissions sources. Your friends and neighbors usually are not (unless they also fall into one of those aforementioned groups). It’s hard to ignore the often enticing tidbits, but you’ve got better—and more effective—things to do than base your college planning decisions on sources who aren’t actually sharing responsibility for the outcome.

5. Exclusively aiming to please one dream school.
There’s a fine line between aligning your college planning with your goals and obsessing over how to please one school. It’s smart planning to visit the websites of the schools that interest you so you can learn about their course planning recommendations, testing requirements, and elements of a complete application. But if you start asking questions like, “Would Princeton rather that I keep playing the clarinet, or join the volleyball team?” you’ve moved from smart college planning to obsessive efforts to please. There is no one, prescribed, correct path of admission to most colleges. In fact, all but the most specialized schools come right out and tell you that they are looking for a freshman class comprised of a variety of backgrounds, interests, and experiences. So don’t search for that one way into your dream school. Planning without a singular obsession on one school won’t just give you even more college options—it will likely improve your chances of admission at the school you resisted the urge to obsess over.

Juniors, what do those emails from colleges mean?

If you ever needed an example of just how much colleges are driven to market themselves in the hopes of driving up their application volume, look no further than “search letters” (a term coined before colleges upgraded to email marketing). If you’re a junior who took the PSAT and you checked the box indicating that you’d like to receive communication from colleges that might fit you, you’re probably already seeing what I mean.

From schools that you may never have heard of to those that are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it seems that colleges across the country are employing direct marketing experts to reach out and generate interest from students. And it’s almost impossible for even the most rational student not to take those communications as a sign that they have an admissions advantage, especially when some colleges come right out and say things akin to, “You’re exactly the type of student we’re looking for.” But that messaging, especially when it comes from schools that turn away more applicants than they admit, is often misleading.

Benjamin Shapiro, a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City who is living this reality right now, penned this piece in the NY Post, “How colleges spam high school students at the worst possible time,” which explains how it feels to receive these messages.

And Marilee Jones, the former dean of admission at MIT, explains the truth about search letters in this post on her blog.

Try moderation?

Most things considered good for you can be done in moderation, excess, or not at all.

Doctors will tell you that regular exercise will lengthen your life, while spending the majority of your time on the couch will shorten it. But most would also agree that running a marathon once a week is best reserved for elite athletes. Moderation is the healthy approach for the masses.

Eating plenty of vegetables and limiting your sugar intake is a much better diet than subsisting on cheeseburgers and soda alone. Yet all but the most stringently health-conscious can say yes to the occasional indulgence with no adverse long-term effects.

It seems that in many college-going communities, excess is the most commonly chosen path. Take every AP class. Get tutors for every subject. Raise your GPA. Mind your class rank. More test prep equals higher scores. Garner accolades. Add community service and leadership on your resume. Find a life-changing story that’s essay-worthy. Work your connections. Aim for the most prestigious colleges. Push, push, push. Do whatever it takes. Just. Get. In.

Some families openly acknowledge that they hate that approach, but feel compelled to adopt it anyway for fear their kids will be “left behind.” If everyone around them is playing the game for keeps, it feels reckless not to suit up and compete.

Do you feel like your college planning could use some moderation? If any of this sounds familiar or in some way resonates with your family, here are a few questions and considerations to think about as you navigate the college process.

1. There is no legislated mandate about how to approach the process, even if you may feel there’s an unstated one. Every family should decide for themselves not just how much emphasis they want to place on getting into a good college, but also just exactly what a “good” college is. And both of those decisions should be more about the student than the parents, social pressures, or college rankings.

2. What does “left behind” actually look like in practice? Most kids who apply to highly selective colleges don’t get in (that’s what makes those schools highly selective—they turn away almost everyone who applies). It’s hard to form a fact-based argument that those who did the work but got denied by their dream schools are now somehow behind those who did get the coveted offers of admission.

3. Have you seen evidence of B or even C students receiving a lifetime personal or professional demotion because of grades or test scores they earned when they were teenagers? Grave or catastrophic mistakes in high school can certainly be life-altering. But one C in biology just won’t be.

You have college planning options, and they aren’t limited to excess or not-at-all. In fact, moderation just might be the perfect prescription.

Take the most challenging courses in the subjects you love, and just do your best in the others. Prep a little for your standardized tests, take them once or twice, and move on. Choose activities you legitimately enjoy and will look forward to every day. Worry less about fixing your weaknesses and spend more time playing to your natural strengths. Learn things that interest you, treat people right, be a good person, and engage in your planning for your future.

Guess what? Most students who follow that plan will find that there are literally hundreds of colleges ready to accept them, schools that might not top the US News rankings, but hey, you were taking the moderate approach anyway.

Even better, more data than ever shows that if you lean into all the opportunities for learning and growth that college will provide you, you’ll be just as likely to forge a happy and successful life as those who took their college planning to excessive lengths, no matter what college’s name ends up on your diploma.

It’s not for me to decide what approach your family takes. But please remember that it is, in fact, a choice–one you make with your actions and your words as your kids progress through high school.

And if you feel the choice you’ve made doesn’t work, or maybe wasn’t actually your choice at all, maybe it’s time to give moderation a try?

Acting as your own manager

High school students may not be intrigued by the headline “Why People Really Quit Their Jobs.” But this article reveals that adults frequently quit their place of work when their jobs aren’t enjoyable, their strengths aren’t being used, or they just aren’t growing in the form of learning, mastery, career progress, etc. And it shares advice for managers to help rectify those ills. Students can use those findings not just to evaluate whether they’re getting enough back from their chosen activities, but also to craft the kind of school and activity life that will keep them happy, engaged, and excited about college. And best of all, students can act as their own managers and embrace just about all of the recommendations.