Engaged without worry

It would be easy, particularly for a new reader to this blog, to get the sense that I’m encouraging kids to be less engaged with their college planning.

Don’t overschedule yourself. Get enough sleep. Stop obsessing over famous colleges. Don’t polish every perceived weakness. Your GPA and test scores don’t define you. It’s all going to be OK.

But there’s a big difference between the student who puts forth care and effort and feels good about it regardless of the outcome and the student who didn’t care enough to put in any effort at all.

There’s a big difference between “Math is not my best subject, so I’m thrilled with a B” and “I don’t try in my math class because I hate that subject.”

There’s a big difference between a student who gets excited about all the opportunities available at a non-famous college that admits most of its applicants and a student who chooses their colleges based on which have the easiest applications to complete.

It’s your future, and it deserves to be thoughtfully considered as you make both small and large choices, from how you spend your time today, to where you go to college, to what you do while you’re there.

But it’s also important to remember that your future hasn’t happened yet. It’s a constant work in progress, rarely defined or even heavily impacted by one event for a high school student. It will construct itself through the choices, learning, and experiences that add up as a sum total from your days, months, and years. If you don’t engage at all, you’ll have some ground to make up later.

If you can treat today like just one step in many, you’ll make the appropriate efforts without all the unnecessary pressure. That’s the best way to engage without worry.

Find a way to contribute

A friend of mine who went to graduate school to earn an MBA at Columbia recalled how ill-equipped he felt for the heavy load of finance courses. And this mathematical discrepancy between him and many of his peers was never more apparent than during the study groups that formed. Those who came from finance and accounting backgrounds could run numerical circles around him, and he didn’t want the group to feel like he was benefiting without contributing.

So he brought snacks. Lots of them.

At every group meeting, he’d inevitably show up with all of the group’s favorites. When they’d struggle with an assignment around capital budgeting and initial cash outlay, he’d chime in, “Who wants Oreos?” to the delight of the sleep-deprived group.

And he kept getting invited back. For two years, he was warmly welcomed. And his contributions were always appreciated regardless of their nutritional value.

The message here is not to seek the easy way out and let other people do the work. But making an impact sometimes means finding a way to do so even when you’re not the strongest member, whether it’s with an MBA study group or the JV cross country team.

You’ll be appreciated, and you’ll keep getting invited back, when you find a way to contribute.

What straight-A students get wrong

Adam Grant’s recent New York Times op-ed, “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” is pitched to college students. But just about all of the messages contained within (1) are equally true for high school students, and (2) make some people deeply uncomfortable.

You can see it in the article’s comments. The defensiveness and outright anger from current and former straight-A students (and the parents of those in both groups) is palpable. But many of those readers missed the point.

Grant isn’t arguing that learning isn’t important, that academics don’t deserve attention, or that lofty goals aren’t worthy of pursuit. He’s arguing that chasing perfection for perfection’s sake is too narrow and restrictive. He’s arguing that students’ current and future potential aren’t encapsulated in a perfect GPA. And he’s arguing that budding greatness might be better nurtured by more time spent developing the person and less time spent perfecting the person’s transcript. Some students can do both simultaneously. But it’s worth pausing occasionally to check your balance.

For more on this, see my past post, “You can’t earn straight A’s in life,” and “What happens to high school valedictorians?

Of course it matters where you go

“It’s not where you go to college, it’s what you do while you’re there.”

I say it in different ways, but the overarching message is always the same.

I believe that principle. It’s why I started Collegewise and why I am still here 19 years later. But the message has never been, “Just pick any college and go.”

Much like choosing a best friend, partner, job, etc., haphazard college selection is a terrible idea. This is your education. It’s four years of time and money. It’s an experience and an opportunity that will almost certainly not repeat itself. Of course it matters where you go.

But great experiences and educations are available at many, many colleges, not just the prestigious ones. You need to do the research and the soul searching to find those that might be right for you. There will be no guarantees, and there’s no such thing as a perfect college. Go into your college experience with eyes open, ready to take advantage of what’s available to you and to be resilient when things don’t go as planned. Treat it like you would any investment—financial, personal, or educational—as something worthy of your care and attention. A college experience and the subsequent outcomes are a product of a relationship, one between the student and the college. And even the best relationships still require work.

But if you do those things, it will matter a lot less whether you’re at Harvard or Haverford, Michigan or Mizzou, Hampshire or Hendrix.

As he has done so many times before, Patrick O’Connor explains an important college admissions premise with the insight and care worthy of his counseling expertise, this time with, “Of Course It Matters Where You Go to College.” My favorite passage:

“A well-developed college list reflects the student’s best understanding of who they are, what matters to them, and how they see the world. Telling them now they’ll be fine no matter what college they go to disrespects their aspirations, their understanding of self, and their investment in the college search. The college selection process started with the student’s vision of what success looks like. It’s best to use that as a guide until the process ends.”

The old-fashioned way

When I was 8, I got the most coveted item on my Christmas wish list—a Star Wars AT-AT. But the box depicted a number of action-figure accessories that turned out not to be included, like various backpacks and climbing ropes and laser pistols. I felt ripped off, duped by false advertising. So I found the only address I saw on the box, wrote them a letter in my best printing, and expressed my 8-year-old displeasure.

Three weeks later, a package arrived at my door. Action figure accessories included.

I probably got this idea of writing to businesses from my mom. A high school English teacher, she taught everyone from AP students to those just happy to pass English. As a creative way to engage the latter group, she once invited them to write letters (this was back in the 80’s) to businesses requesting changes or improvements. From kids who didn’t like brown M&M’s to those who felt their favorite bands had phoned their last album in, her students were thrilled with the responses—and the offerings—they received, from a case of M&Ms to an album signed by the band leader. One particularly industrious student had expressed his taste displeasure to the Miller Brewing Company and received a large shipment of beer…sent to the school and intercepted by the front office.

Apparently, letter writing hasn’t gone out of style. Just last week, a 9-year-old girl wrote NBA superstar Steph Curry to express her disappointment that his signature shoes were made only for boys. And Curry responded, intent on making it right.

Email makes communication faster and easier. But it also all too often turns what might have been a thoughtful expression into haphazard, easily delete-able lobs. To imagine Steph Curry deleting yet another email without responding seems a lot less heartless than crumpling up a 9-year-old’s handwritten letter.

Students, if you want to get someone’s attention, if you’d like to make a request or complaint that will get the thought and action you’re hoping for, you might consider putting down the laptop and picking up a pen. If you want advice about how to write the letter (or how to address the envelope), pick the laptop back up and Google will have you covered.

By the way, just six months after my letter to the AT-AT makers, this notice alerting consumers was added to the box.

AT-ATUpdateAnd my 9-year-old mind was convinced that my letter inspired the change.

Time on your collective hands

If you could make your regular meetings for your counseling office, student club, or parent organization more enjoyable, and do so without reducing the quality of the decisions reached, would you be interested? If so, shorten the meetings. New research shows that even shortening a 1-hour meeting to just 50 minutes can make a difference without detriment.

Do that with every meeting you schedule, and you could regain the equivalent of at least one full day’s work. Multiply that by the number of people who regularly attend your meeting and you’ve really got more time on your collective hands.

What is college for?

All this college preparation, all the associated anxiety, all the information-seeking and financial planning and candidacy strengthening that’s so ingrained in today’s families, it might make sense to stop occasionally and ask, “What is college for?”

More specifically, what is college for for you? Is it so you can get a good job after college? Is it so you can find your path in life? Is it so you can have four years of new friends, learning, and experiences?

There’s no universal right answer that fits every student. Your background, goals, finances, etc. can shape a lot of what exactly college will be for you.

But when students really dig into this question and answer it honestly, they often come to one or both of two conclusions:

1. The colleges they’re considering don’t closely match what they’re going to college for.
2. Dozens of other colleges—potentially far less selective (or expensive)—exist that could give this student exactly what they’re looking for.

You’ll probably find and get accepted to more of the right colleges for you if you start by asking, “What’s college for?”

Failure statements

If you don’t put any effort into a class–you don’t participate, complete assignments, or study for the big exam–and you fail, you’ve made one kind of statement with that failure.

But when it comes to something that might not work—leading a fundraiser, trying out for the team, producing a musical in your community, etc.—if you really put in the time and the effort to get the result you wanted and things still just don’t go your way, you’ve made a very different failure statement.

The former statement is: I didn’t care enough to try.

The latter statement is: I cared enough to try in the face of potential failure.

Make enough good failure statements and you’ll eventually have plenty of successes to talk about. And you’ll inevitably have plenty of college options.

Real world attitudes

There are two problems with perfect GPAs, perfect test scores, MVPs, student body presidents, and most other accolades that can be listed on a college application: none are universally attainable (genes dictated I could have been a competitive miler in high school) and almost none of them translate easily into the adult real world.

Yes, the lessons and work ethic developed in pursuit of them is invaluable. But you don’t have to reach the pinnacle to develop those lessons. And that leads to the broader point.

Generosity, insight, loyalty, honesty, fun, tenacity, creativity and dozens of other traits—each is an attitude. Attitudes are universally available. Attitudes are not dependent on your genes or your economics or your chosen high school. Attitudes are choices. And attitudes put to great use become skills. You can learn each one if you’re willing to make the choice.

Attitude isn’t easily captured in a GPA or a test score. But it always translates to the real world.