How do you show up?

When you arrive at school, at your club meeting, your part-time job, community service project, or family dinner table, how do you show up?

Do you show up reluctantly, arms figuratively or literally folded, anticipating everything that could be unenjoyable, regrettable, or otherwise negative about the experience?

Or do you show up enthusiastically, expecting the best, eagerly waiting for what’s possible rather than problematic?

That posture is a choice. That choice predisposes you to look for evidence of what you expected. And we tend to get what we look for.

If you feel like things just aren’t going your way, if you’re in that camp of seeing all the advantages that other people are getting, leaving you somehow missing out, you might turn things around just by showing up a little differently.

Seniors, are you honoring your application promises?

A college application is a series of promises. At the most basic level, it’s a promise that the information you’ve shared is accurate and complete. But you’re also promising to keep being the person you’ve presented. Here are four promises you’re making within your application, along with (where appropriate) some recommendations about actions to take if it becomes clear you’re going to break the promise.

The viability of your contact information 
Yes, if you change your email address or phone number after you apply to college, it’s worth updating them so they can get in touch with you. But it’s just as important to keep the implied promise that you will receive—and respond to when asked to do so—communication colleges send you. This is the time to check your email once a day. Check your spam filter a few times a week. Once you apply, most colleges will only contact you with requests for additional information or to share updates on your status. Make sure you keep your promise to tend to the channels you’ve asked them to use to contact you.

Your class schedule
You made a promise to your college that you’ll finish the classes you told them you were taking and that you planned to take. If your current or future schedule has changed in any way from that which was listed on your application, you need to update the college with a new promise. Course changes are not inherently bad, but it’s worth a conversation with your high school counselor before you make that choice (and if you make the choice and need advice around communicating it to the college).

Your grades
Most colleges admit students provisionally, which is a nice way of saying, “You’re in as along as nothing happens that would make us change our minds.” A precipitous drop in grades is one of the most common reasons a college will rescind an admissions decision. That’s why “Keep your grades up” is common–and also imperative–advice. What qualifies as a “precipitous drop”? There’s no universal definition, and colleges evaluate those scenarios on a case by case basis. But while I’ve never seen a student who went from A’s to B’s in two classes lose their admission, when C’s or D’s start showing up, especially for students who presented a very different academic record on the application, it’s cause for concern. Don’t let the senior party start too early.

Your disciplinary record
Remember those questions on the application that asked if you’d ever been suspended or otherwise disciplined? If those answers have changed since you applied, visit your high school counselor right away and discuss how you should update the colleges. Some applicants run the other direction of that advice and hope that by keeping quiet, the story will just go away and a college will never know. That’s a risky strategy that I don’t recommend. A college is almost certainly going to find out, and you’re better off getting in front of that story than you will be reacting to it.

I understand it might feel counterintuitive to voluntarily share news with a college that might hurt your application chances. But that news is going to come to light at some point. And the worst possible outcome is to suffer the consequences when it’s too late to accept an offer of admission from another college. And in fact, preemptively sharing the news is a good indication that you’re a mature student who can be counted on to honor your promises.

Got questions about overparenting?

If you’ve got questions for—or just want to learn from the wisdom of—Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, she’ll be featured on a live Q & A webinar on Tuesday, February 19, at 8:30 p.m. EST. All the details are here.

What’s their challenge around change?

To make improvements in any organization means to change it. To move (figuratively or literally) from one place to a different place. But when the potential for change hits people, they often get defensive and shut it down. The familiar is a comfortable place to be. And the unknown is easier to avoid if we can. That’s why, as this article out of MIT’s Sloan School of Management points out, there are three obstacles to producing change in an organization, each represented with a different type of objection.

1. “That’s not what my experience has shown.”
The first challenge is a resistance to new data or information. The quickest way for the naysayer to discount it is to claim that they have never personally experienced it.

2. “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
The second challenge is a resistance to change. The current way is familiar and comfortable. A new way is unfamiliar and scary. Best way to discount the new way? Entrench yourself in history and go with, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

3. “That will never work here.”
The third challenge is the barrier of “organizational uniqueness,” which appears to be a nice way of saying that your organization is just so much different, more innovative, and all-out better than others that what works for someone else couldn’t possibly work here.

Imagine what kind of change you could drive in your club, office, or other organization if you did just two things with these above statements: (1) Refuse to use them yourself, and (2) when someone in the organization uses one, remember where it’s coming from and try to speak to their challenge around change.

Authoritative is not helicoptering

The title of Pamela Druckerman’s recent New York Times piece, “The Bad News About Helicopter Parenting: It Works,” will delight those parents who are running their children’s lives. But a closer read–and the referenced research–reveals that she’s not really talking about helicopter parenting.

From the article:

The most effective parents, according to the authors, are “authoritative.” They use reasoning to persuade kids to do things that are good for them. Instead of strict obedience, they emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence — skills that will help their offspring in future workplace situations that we can’t even imagine yet.

That’s not helicopter parenting. Helicopter parents don’t persuade their kids to do things that are good for them. They just jump in and do it for their kids. Or they make every decision leading up to the point where the parents are restrained from further involvement. A parent can’t descend into the orchestra pit and play the violin for their kid, but if they choose the instrument and decide on the lesson frequency and make every other decision around the role of this instrument in their kid’s life, that’s a helicopter parent. And it’s an entirely different parenting style than one in which the parent highlights the benefits of music in their child’s life.

The simple metric: Could your student do this for themselves? And if not, how can they stretch just a little beyond their current abilities so that you don’t do it all yourself? That will prevent your helicopter blades from whirring too close to your student.

Self zero-sums

The zero-sum approach dictates that for one side to win, the other must lose. There’s no win-win, no version of an agreement where both sides get some of what they want and still feel whole at the end. It’s all or nothing, one winner, one loser. If you sit down at the lunch table ahead of somebody else, it’s the difference between saying, “It’ll be a little tight, but we can both fit if I scoot over” and “Sorry, there’s no more room.”

Some high school students take a zero-sum approach to their college prep, only they are the only winner or loser.

If they study hard and get an A, they win. If they study hard and don’t get an A, they lose.

If their ACT score cracks 30, they win. If not, they lose.

Chosen as the lead for the school play? You win. Chosen as the understudy? You lose.

Swarthmore says yes = you win. Swarthmore says no = you lose.

Zero-sum makes life adversarial. And it’s even worse when you’re your own adversary.

This isn’t a post arguing that everyone should be dubbed a winner and that life should be full of participation trophies. I’m arguing that life—and college prep—cannot be so neatly divided into two distinct outcomes of winning and losing. Basketball and elections, yes, somebody has to win. But that’s not the way the world in general works, and it’s not a good posture to take in high school.

Naysayers will tell you this is soft thinking, that winners get ahead and that you need to best the competition lest you be left behind. That’s demonstrably untrue, by the way, but that doesn’t change the mind of someone with that worldview. If you’re in that camp, good luck with it. But please don’t blame what you’ve decided is the harsh reality of the world each time you come out in the loser’s bracket. The more you view life as a zero-sum competition, the more it will feel that way.

Your effort has value. Your contributions have value. And your learning, especially in those instances when things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped, has enormous value. Don’t discount or miss it entirely just because you perceive that you somehow lost.

When you really look at all the value you’re creating and receiving, it’s a lot less likely that you’ll calculate a self zero-sum.

The effort to save

While financial aid officers use formulas to determine a family’s financial need, they also retain a lot of latitude to make decisions that might go against their calculations. And one potentially important and often overlooked way to influence that decision is the degree to which a family has made an honest effort to save, regardless of the amount.

Financial aid officers believe that it is both the student’s and parent’s responsibility to pay for college to the degree that they are able. Any honest effort to save is a reflection that a family is taking that responsibility seriously, a signal that can positively influence the type and amount of the aid you receive. Flagrantly living beyond your means, especially when paired with an expectation that a college will somehow come through to make up the difference between the cost of college and what you can afford, sends a very different message and will elicit a very different reaction.

Every dollar you save for college is a dollar you don’t have to borrow or rely on a financial aid package to cover. That’s the numerical advantage. But don’t forget the other potential advantage, one that’s based less on numbers and more on your earnest effort to save.

Do them anyway

Students and their parents often lament the qualities, talents, and contributions that colleges won’t see during the application process. If only the college could see how nice you are to your younger siblings, the way people respond to you at the counter of your part-time job, the relationships you build or focus you maintain or genuine passion you carry for your hobby or interest—if only the college would look at those things, they’d see how much more I am than just a collection of grades and test scores.

Still, do those things anyway. Do them to the very best of your ability. It’s who you are, and you don’t need a college to tell you that they’re valuable.

Just because you don’t think a college will be able to appreciate the way you bring your special qualities to the world doesn’t make those qualities any less special. There’s plenty of comparison built into this process around how this grade or test score or award will stack up against the competition and be evaluated by your chosen colleges. No need to sully the pure parts of life with attempts to attach them to college applications.

There may not be a space to write “I’m my siblings’ favorite babysitter” on a college application, but the traits that make you good at one thing inevitably make you a better human. And better humans make more of an impact wherever they spend their time, and that includes activities that do—and those that do not—belong on a college application.

And besides, what’s the alternative? To stop being who you are just because colleges won’t evaluate it? That is never a good strategy, college admissions or otherwise.

If you have special talents, skills, or traits that you don’t believe can be measured on a college application, do them anyway. As long as you and others benefit in some way, the college admissions part will eventually take care of itself.

What are your ideas worth?

If you’re in a club, organization, or company, you’ve probably come across people who have lots of ideas. They’ve always got a suggestion about what the group should change, initiate, or roll out. And they often express those ideas with some version of, “We should…”

“We should do a different fundraiser this year—nobody likes selling candy bars.”

“We should recruit more people to join us. We’d get a lot more done.”

“We should do better training for our managers.”

Good ideas are valuable. If you’ve got them, you should share them, as an idea’s validity within an organization is often determined in part by how many others are willing to get behind it.

But please don’t mistake proposing the idea for a valuable contribution. The idea is the easier part. What’s harder and much more valuable is everything that happens next.

What are you willing to do to test that idea? What initiative will you show? What responsibility will you assume? What risk will you take with your time or energy or reputation?

An idea is only worth something if it creates a change. And for that to happen almost always requires someone championing it, someone who’s willing to assume responsibility for enrolling interested parties, pushing through the difficulties and the compromises, and successfully shipping an often not necessarily perfect but certainly good enough version.

An idea that never comes to life fades away. But one that comes to fruition can be evaluated, tweaked, and learned from.

So the next time you’re about to say, “We should____,” consider following it with, “And I’m willing to____ to make it happen.”

The more you’re willing to offer in the second piece, the more likely people will get excited about the first.

Distraction out, focus in

Imagine you’re struggling in a class, so you ask your teacher if you can get some extra help at lunch. Your teacher agrees, but when you arrive, ready to explain where you’re struggling, they say, “I’m just going to grade these papers. But keep talking.”

You sit down with your college interviewer who says, “Tell me a little bit about yourself while I review this proposal I have to submit at work later today.”

You’ve been struggling with a decision in your personal life and ask a friend for some advice. But while you’re explaining the situation, your friend is busy trying to create the perfect playlist, with each potential song requiring a 10-second sampling to test it as an appropriate choice.

Would you be annoyed? Would you feel like you were in fact not the focus of their attention? Would you be tempted to ask to reschedule to a time when they weren’t so distracted?

Now replace each of their distractions with “scrolling through their phone.” Does it feel any different? Probably not.

If you’re trying to have a meaningful interaction with someone—not necessarily one in which you need something, just one where conversation is intended to take place—put the phone away and silence it. Send a signal that tells the other person that right here, right now, this interaction is your priority.

When you replace your distractions with focus, you’re more likely to get a similar gesture in return.