If it were all just a lottery

Students, here’s a three-step process to add a little more joy to—and remove some stress from—your college admissions process.

1. Consider this question: If college admissions were nothing more than a lottery—no application or evaluation at all, just buy a ticket (limit one per applicant) to enter the lottery at any college that interests you, cross your fingers, and hope the luck-of-the-draw swings your way—what would you do differently? Really think about it. If the entire process were nothing more than just a random game of chance, what specific changes would you make in your life?

2. Make a list of the changes you identified in response to the question above.

3. Now, take a good hard look at each item on the list and ask yourself, “What is stopping me from making this change right now?” Answer as specifically as you can.

Sure, for many, you’ll probably have legit answers about what’s stopping you. You couldn’t make long-term resolutions to sleep until noon, refuse to do your homework, or play video games from dawn to dusk all day every day because those changes would probably prevent you from graduating high school, much less attending college.

But I’d wager you’ll have a hard time coming up will real, evidence-based answers preventing you from making every proposed change.

You have more control, more agency, more power to decide what you do and don’t do than you might think.

And even if only one item were legitimately doable, wouldn’t it be worth doing?

Celebrate the certainties

If I could pick one practice that most robs the joy from what should be the exciting time of applying to college for a family, it’s conditional celebration. Celebrating if the SAT score breaks a certain (arbitrary) barrier. Celebrating if the semester grades reach a certain numerical GPA. Celebrating if the dream school says yes. Conditional celebration turns the entire process into a competition defined by winning and losing.

The fix? Celebrate the certain.

A student is certain to submit their first college application. Celebrate it.

A student is certain to submit their final college application. Celebrate it.

A student is certain to be admitted to at least one college (provided that student applies to at least one counselor-approved safety school). Celebrate it.

Just because something is certain to occur doesn’t make it any less deserving of a celebration. If it did, nobody would celebrate birthdays, Thanksgiving, or the arrival of summer break.

In some communities of students without the right resources and support, those outcomes may not be so certain. What a great reminder for everyone that successfully preparing for, applying to, and getting into any college is worthy of celebration, no matter what your dream school says.

Celebrating certainties along the path to college isn’t arbitrarily injecting faux merriment into the process. It’s acknowledging that a teenager is getting closer to a life-impacting four years along the path to adulthood, an outcome they’ve worked to earn.

High stakes, judgment, and uncertainty don’t exactly make for happy times. It’s no wonder so many families look back on the admissions process as one filled with anxiety and dread. The fastest way to turn those feelings around is to identify the certain but still important eventualities for each student and to inject some well-deserved celebration.

Reject the conditional, embrace the certain, and let your celebrations begin.

Don’t let fear drive the bus

Fear can sometimes be a healthy emotion. That big upcoming chemistry test, that big game next week, that big dog baring its teeth–fear can put an end to dawdling and move you to immediate action. Studying for that test, practicing your plays, getting the hell away from that dog… You’ve got fear, in part or in full, to thank.

But fear tends to do terrible things to kids and parents during the college application process.

Fear is the reason kids apply to 25 schools, many of which they don’t actually know much about or even want to attend.

Fear is the reason some parents choose the schools or complete the applications or even write the essays for their student.

Fear is the reason kids ask for feedback on their essays from anyone willing to read them, regardless of whether those people know anything about college admission essays.

Fear is the reason parents compare accolades and test scores and college acceptances with other parents.

Fear is the reason that kids hijack their completed applications and refuse to send them until right before the deadline. After all, once you hit send, it’s officially out of your hands and off to the committee.

Fear is the reason so many students and parents exhibit behaviors they would never embrace or endorse in other areas of their lives. That’s what the pressure around college admissions can do to some people.

There’s no magic pill to take to make this kind of fear go away. But you can recognize it for what it is. Here’s how.

When you’re feeling anxious and you’re about to take action, ask yourself:

Am I doing this because it’s a fundamentally good idea? Am I doing this because it will help me get where I want to go? Am I doing this because I will feel good knowing I’ve taken this step?

Or am I doing this only because I’m afraid?

You don’t back away from a snarling dog just because you’re afraid. You do it because it’s a smart thing to do, because you want to be safe, and because it gets you where you want to go.

But you’re not applying to 25 mostly unfamiliar (to you) colleges because it’s a smart strategy. You’re doing it because you’re afraid. And fear alone is rarely accompanied by a logical course of action.

If you want to get to where you really want to go, get good directions, follow a smart route, and ask for help if you get lost. But whatever you do, don’t let fear drive the bus.

“How many APs do I need to get into _____?”

Many students searching for the non-existent formula for admission to the most selective colleges will ask how many AP (Advanced Placement) courses they “need to take” to be admitted. But you aren’t likely to find a college that will give a specific answer to that question, because there isn’t one.

The University of Virginia explains this well on their recent blog post, but here are some additional details to consider.

The more competitive the college, the more rigorous the course load of the admitted applicants. But those same colleges can’t provide a specific number of AP courses they “require.” Every high school is different in their offerings. Every student is different in their circumstances. Every applicant presents a different picture of strengths, opportunities, challenges, and impact for the committee to consider. Those intricacies can’t be reduced to a one-size-fits-all answer.

Taking only two of seven AP courses offered at your well-resourced high school doesn’t exactly demonstrate that you seek the kind of academic challenges schools like UVA look for in applicants. But if your high school only offers two APs, you take both, and you’re at the top of your class, it’s a different story. And if you’re a foster kid who switched high schools (and homes) six times in three years and somehow willed your way to arrive at your senior year college ready at all, you’ve already demonstrated a lot more mettle than any number of AP courses could ever demand. This is what admissions officers mean when they say they evaluate applicants in “context.” There’s more to a student and to a school than what’s communicated on a transcript.

Asking a selective college how many AP classes (or what SAT scores, or how many community service hours) you need is like asking a tennis coach how many aces you need to have served on the JV team to make varsity. It’s like asking your manager at your part-time job how many hours you need to work to get promoted. It’s like asking a potential prom date how many nice deeds you need to do to guarantee an acceptance to your prom invitation. There may be guidelines, but there are no hard-and-fast rules.

Colleges aren’t trying to sidestep questions like this or to mislead applicants. They’re telling you what they’re able to tell you. Some seemingly easy questions just don’t have easy answers.

Wherever you’re considering applying to college, visit the “Admissions” section of their website and read about their requirements for admission. If they require certain high school coursework, they’ll tell you. If they recommend (which is different from requiring) certain coursework, they’ll tell you. And if the answers just aren’t as specific as you’d like them to be and you’re struggling to plan your coursework or assess your admissions chances, run it by your high school counselor. In the unlikely event that your counselor can’t help you, reach out directly to the college (their contact information will likely be in the “Admissions” section of the website). Don’t have your parents do this for you—show the college that you’re taking responsibility for your own education. And you might consider reviewing the advice and the linked posts in one of my past posts, “Guidelines for emailing colleges.”

And most importantly, try to view your high school curriculum as a vehicle to learn, to challenge yourself, and to prepare for college work, not as an itemized checklist to be completed with the hope of a guaranteed admission to school X.

You know yourself better than colleges do. Why not decide for yourself how many AP classes you should take?

In service of the team

When Sam Walker, founding editor of the Wall Street Journal’s sports section, set out to analyze the 17 most dominant teams in history across a wide range of sports, he found that their one shared characteristic was not the stars, coaching, money, or strategy. Their dominance always coincided with the tenure of one captain. But the more surprising finding, which became the topic of his best-selling book The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership, was that none of these captains fit the picture of a charismatic, confident, commanding presence who welcomed the pressure of making the big play when the game was on the line. Instead, they led in service of their team.

Making sure the team’s best scorers got the ball as often as possible.

Carrying water bottles or delivering luggage from the bus or picking up balls after practice.

Accepting less money than their market value to create salary cap space for stars.

Arriving early to practice and staying late.

Setting the example of how to work and sacrifice in pursuit of team goals.

Choosing private words of encouragement and constructive criticism over inspirational speeches to the entire team.

Demonstrating at every turn their willingness to do the often unglamorous work of putting the team and its success first.

Theirs is not the kind of leadership that makes for Hollywood portrayals. But on each of these 17 dominant teams, and on more than 100 others that achieved almost as much success, the success overlapped with the comparatively quiet captain at the helm and often ended when that captain’s tenure was complete.

The most successful teams, sports and otherwise, have both stars and leaders, and those roles are not inherently linked. Leadership doesn’t depend on your genetics to bestow you with elusive traits that leave you born to lead. Your talent and title are irrelevant. You just have to make the decision, every day, to lead in service of the team.

No college degree? No problem for Google and Apple

CNBC ran a story this month about 15 companies—two of which are Google and Apple—that no longer require employees to have a college degree. I think we’re on the verge of this practice becoming a lot more common and a lot less newsworthy.

You’re not going to become a doctor or an engineer or a physics professor without going to college. But if you can become so good at programming or system architecture or selling that you’re the best applicant for the job, why would any company care whether or not you had a college degree? College is one way—and if it’s the right college for you, a great way—to learn marketable skills. But it’s certainly not the only way.

I’m not suggesting that every student would be well advised to pick a future career at age 17 and then ditch college to pursue it. Google and Apple are showing that you can certainly take that route, and it might be worth considering. But it’s also putting a lot of your future’s eggs in a one-path basket.

What I do strongly advise every student to recognize is that the old path of just going to college, getting a degree, and expecting inherently better career options to present themselves is disappearing. If all you have to show for your four years in college is a degree saying that you spent four years in college, that doesn’t say as much as it used to.

Learning and experience are increasingly available to everyone via the internet. Curiosity and drive no longer require dollars, debt, and a degree to feed them. More paths are opening to more places for more people. What feels like the sure thing—just go to college and it will all work out—isn’t such a sure thing anymore.

I’m a college proponent. It’s why I started Collegewise and why I’m still with this company 19 years later. I think college can be a transformational event for anyone lucky enough to attend. It’s a vehicle for upward mobility to those who just need the first lift. It’s an invitation to explore your interests and to discover new talents. It’s a chance to surround yourself with opportunities, people, and experiences that will impact the rest of your life.

But it’s no longer a means to an end. It’s not a step to be checked off with a subsequent reward for completion from the rest of the world. College used to work that way. But times and the world have changed.

One of the most read posts I’ve ever written is this one on building a remarkable college career. It—and the linked past posts within it—shares some advice about how to make the most of your time in college, all of which is positioned around the role of college in the changing world, and the power today’s college students have to maximize their time while there.

How to build a remarkable college career

Deposits and withdrawals

A response in the Q&A portion of yesterday’s recommended podcast got me thinking that for students, one of the best ways to stay motivated and positive during your journey to college is to make regular deposits to compensate for the inevitable withdrawals.

Reminders that your dream school is a huge reach. Losing the election you wanted so badly to win. The A you missed by three points, the starting spot on the team that went to another player, the SAT score that didn’t raise as much as you’d hoped—those are withdrawals. Withdrawals are inevitable for ambitious people who regularly put themselves in failure’s path. You often can’t control when they happen. But they can withdraw from your motivation, your drive, and your confidence.

Unless you make regular deposits.

Reminding yourself that what you do in college will matter more than where you go. Taking pride in the work you put into that election or that sport or that test prep. Celebrating your strengths over fixing your weaknesses. Focusing on what went right over what went wrong. Accepting that no one grade, test score, or admissions decision from any college has as much impact on your future as does your curiosity, character, and work ethic—these are all deposits. And you can make them in unlimited amounts.

Of course, you can also get deposits from wins, from successes, from things that went right. But those aren’t always in your control. Sure, it’s great to save money by socking away what Grandma sends for your birthday this year. But you’ll save a lot more if you regularly set aside your own money you’ve earned just by working. Emotional deposits work the same way. Gratefully accept them when they come from outside sources, but train yourself to make regular deposits on your own behalf, too.

And parents, have you contributed to your own student’s emotional account recently?

Ignore the sunk costs

I’ve noticed over the years that many students who agonize over a decision are hung up on what they perceive as the sunk cost.

In business-speak, a sunk cost is money that you’ve already spent and can’t get back. The non-refundable deposit you put down to secure office space in a building is now gone. It’s a sunk cost. And business schools teach their students to ignore sunk costs. If a new building with better, cheaper office space becomes available, one that will ultimately save you more money over time than the current space you put a deposit on, ignore the sunk cost and make a new decision based on the future cost.

For high school students, sunk costs sound like this.

I don’t want to take AP Spanish, but I’ve spent the last three years taking Spanish…

I’d rather play in the Dixieland band after school, but I played club volleyball for so long…

I’ve lost interest in this club and we never seem to do anything. But I can’t quit now. I’ve been a member since freshman year…

These struggles are almost always based on two things: the perceived sunk cost, and the perception that colleges don’t like students who quit.

If you’re wrestling with a decision that involves sunk costs, give Seth Godin’s podcast “Ignore sunk costs” a listen (I speed his episodes up to 1 ½ times in iTunes as his speaking runs a little on the slow side for me). And please pay particular attention to his remarks about quitting. Ignoring sunk costs doesn’t mean that you should indiscriminately quit anything. It just means not allowing the sunk cost to deter you from what might be a much better decision based on new information or realities.

And I can’t think of a college that wouldn’t endorse the same approach.

Great trails

Leading a conversation with “I’m the quarterback of the high school football team” is a good sign that you’re having some current success. But, “Twenty years ago, I was a great high school quarterback” is a sign that you’re living in the past. And maybe even an indicator that you haven’t done much worth talking about since then.

A recent college grad might sound great telling people they went to Princeton, Georgetown, Stanford, or another highly selective school. But every subsequent year, that tidbit will resonate less like an accomplishment worthy of pride and more like an attempt to hang on to past glory.

As you get older, people will care less about where you went to college and more about the trail you’ve left behind since then. And great trails start from plenty of colleges that aren’t famous.

No comparisons

Jeff Schiffman, director of admission at Tulane University, shares some great advice for college freshmen, the overarching theme of which I believe is just as applicable for high school students.

“Stop comparing yourself to others on social media. All at once, your friends from home are going to head to colleges around the world. And all at once, it will become a contest to see who can show how incredibly epic their first few weeks are. It can be so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of looking at everyone else’s experiences and comparing them to your own. The reality is that everyone has ups and downs in the first five weeks. There will be times of loneliness, homesickness, and anxiety: even at a school ranked #4 for the happiest students. When you look at Instagram, you are comparing your worst moments to everyone else’s best moments. So, next time you experience the natural low points that everyone experiences when they arrive at college: put down the phone. Go for a run. Head to the gym. Meditate. Just don’t compare yourself to others.”