Make space for sanity

Ken Anselment is the dean of admission and financial aid at Lawrence University and the father of a high school senior. One of his favorite pieces of advice to share with families going through this process is to set aside one (and only one) time per week when you as a family will talk about college.

“Maybe it’s a couple hours every Sunday afternoon (our family pick; hence “Sundays with Ken”). Maybe it’s Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Whatever. Pick a day and time, and agree that you as a family will reserve serious college talk only for those times. All other times during the week that college might come up (and that’s pretty much the remaining 166 hours), park it and save it till your next meeting. The exception, of course, is if it is urgent. (And it’s usually not urgent).”

You can learn more about the benefits of this in-house policy, and Anselment’s successful implementation of it within his own house, in his piece “Making Space for Sanity in the College Search.”

College reps, consider adding these two sentences

It’s travel season for college reps who are heading to college fairs, information nights at high schools, and other events to put their schools in front of (potentially) interested applicants. Unfortunately, many of those earnest reps are hamstrung by the canned spiels that have been approved by some combination of the president’s office and the marketing consultants, usually resulting in a sales pitch to draw in as many applicants as possible.

If you’re a college rep with even a little wiggle room for creativity and straight talk, why not include some version of these two sentences in your next pitch to students?

“If you haven’t yet considered us, here’s why we might be right for you.”

“If you’re already considering us, here’s why we might not be for you.”

Both of these statements move away from the same-as-all-the-others pitches that encourage any student willing to pay the application fee to apply. They force you to think about what actually makes your institution different. And most importantly, they seek not only to attract those applicants who are more likely to actually attend if admitted, but also to repel those who are just never realistically going to call your school home.

It might not boost your total application numbers. But I’ll bet it gets you a more interesting, committed, and engaged freshman class.

What kind of meeting will this be?

The colleagues at Collegewise who know me best know never to send me an email like this.

Kevin, could you and I schedule an hour of time to chat in the next few days? I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.

All that does is conjure up images in my mind of potential agendas, none of which are positive.

Somebody is leaving Collegewise.

Somebody really let down a customer who’s now upset.

Somebody has contracted the Bubonic plague, etc.

I know this is entirely my fault and that it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way (after all, I could just as easily think, This is probably going to be something great!) And in fact, those vague requests almost never lead to conversations that were as bad as I imagined they could be. But I always appreciate when someone gives me a 1-2 sentence preview of what this conversation will be about, so my mind doesn’t spin from now until the conversation. And I can even start thinking productively about how to make the meeting worth our time.

Given (1) how often students, parents, counselors, and teachers might be emailing each other, and (2) how many of those emails involve a request for a conversation or an actual meeting, it’s worth considering how the request itself colors the recipient’s perception of the impending meeting.

Do you want the meeting to be one that they actively dread? One that they worry could be bad but aren’t yet sure of? One that they’re tentatively encouraged by? Or one that they can actively look forward to and even begin considering how to best help you with your request?

For example, everything about this request leaves the recipient certain that this will not be a pleasant meeting:

We were extremely disappointed to learn that our son will not be placed in AP US History next year. He is a top student and this is completely unacceptable. Please contact us at your earliest convenience so we can address this with you.

And this sounds like a meeting that could go either way:

Are you available to meet this week about our son’s course schedule? We have some concerns we’d like to discuss.

This meeting could be positive:

Our son just informed us that he will not be placed in AP US History next year. We were hoping we could meet with you to get your feedback and to discuss his options, as we don’t want to make any crucial mistakes.

And this meeting sounds like an entirely positive one:

Our son just informed us that he will not be placed in AP US History next year, which certainly didn’t come as a surprise as we know that history was not his strongest subject last semester. But we want to make sure that we aren’t overlooking any available options that might help rectify this. And if there aren’t, we’d love your advice about the best course schedule for him given his college goals.

The way you ask for a meeting affects the likelihood that the meeting itself will be productive.

Bonus tip: Asking for “advice” is almost always a good way to open up meeting possibilities.

One last bonus tip: This goes best when the student, not the parent, sends the email.

Guaranteed return?

Students, as you progress through high school and prepare to apply to college, one question worth asking about the ways you’re choosing to spend your time might be, “Does this investment have a guaranteed return?”

This class, this activity, this opportunity or experience, is it guaranteed to pay you back in some way?

Will it make you happier? Will it make you smarter? Will it help you learn, grow, and discover or enhance your talents? Will it challenge or push you? Will it help you or others? Will it earn you money, credibility, or trust? Will you learn to work with people, to manage complex projects, or to lead?

Or will the only acceptable return be an admission to a college of your choice?

Those two categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s say you’re stronger in your English and social studies classes than you are in the sciences, but you enroll in AP Chemistry anyway because you want to show colleges you’re challenging yourself. For many students, there’s a guaranteed return on that investment whether or not your dream college ends up saying yes. Challenging yourself is good as long as it doesn’t leave you burned out or miserable. And taking AP Chemistry will be like a workout for your brain. The experience will leave you smarter and more prepared for the academics in (any) college. And it might even boost your confidence, too.

But that activity you’re doing that you don’t enjoy, that you don’t really pour your heart into, that you’re really just going through the motions so you can list it on your college application, where’s the guaranteed return?

That summer program you really don’t want to attend but resolved to do because you’ve heard it will look good to colleges, is there a guaranteed return on that investment?

Those community service projects where you’re just showing up to do the bare minimum until you get your 10 or 30 or 100 hours you want to cite on your college application, is that minimal effort actually doing any good for the people, the organization, or yourself?

I’ve never met a student who actually enjoys test prep, and it certainly won’t teach you anything useful other than how to take a standardized test. But there’s a potential guaranteed return if you balance your college list beyond those schools that are reaches for you. Higher test scores will make you more admissible to many (though certainly not all) colleges.

If you don’t see a guaranteed return in what you’re doing, maybe you need a new way of spending your time, a new goal, or both.

Rewards, or punishments?

Parents and counselors who are encouraging teens to make application progress might be interested in a recent study shared in this Harvard Business Review piece, which showed that our brains are more likely to take action to pursue a reward than they are to avoid a punishment.

“Neuroscience suggests that when it comes to motivating action (for example, getting people to work longer hours or producing star reports), rewards may be more effective than punishments…When we expect something good, our brain initiates a ‘go’ signal. This signal is triggered by dopaminergic neurons deep in the mid-brain that move up through the brain to the motor cortex, which controls action. In contrast, to avoid bad things — poison, deep waters, untrustworthy people — we usually simply need to stay put, to not reach out. So our brain has evolved to accommodate an environment in which often (though not always) the best way to not get hurt is to avoid action altogether. When we anticipate something bad, our brain triggers a ‘no go’ signal.”

Instead of focusing on the future punishments that come with failing to make enough progress—stress, encroaching deadlines, the possible loss of admissions advantages at some colleges, etc.—try focusing on the rewards of making deliberate, thoughtful progress, like completing applications long before friends do, enjoying application-free winter holidays, and gaining admissions advantages at schools that evaluate applications on a rolling basis.

It’s not likely to work like a magic wand. But the college admissions process can always use more positivity. If doing so actually motivates the students immersed in it to dig in and make more progress, that’s a bonus in my book.

When the race itself is fun

Yesterday morning, I saw three kids racing each other to see who could get to their elementary school first. Big grins, arms flailing, backpacks bouncing up and down—I’m sure the race injected some extra excitement, but none of these kids appeared to be dreading arriving to school. And the second and third place finishers seemed to shrug it off immediately and bound right inside along with the winner. The race itself was the fun part.

I wonder at what point they’ll stop bounding into school and start running a different race?

Who gets into the AP class, who sets the curve, who gets picked for the lead or the editor or the starting position, who gets the best test scores, who gets into an Ivy League school, etc. That race isn’t nearly as fun. And at many schools, the kids who don’t finish first feel like they’ve let themselves and their families down.

None of us gets to enjoy the carefree days of childhood forever. And I’ve never had a problem with high school kids experiencing work, responsibility, and even the occasional stress that comes along with it. We’re preparing them for life, after all.

But I’d like to believe there’s a way for even high school kids to enjoy school, learning, activities, and preparing for college in such a way that they enjoy just running the race. Praising effort over achievement, focusing on strengths instead of fixing weaknesses, and reminding kids that what they do while they’re in college will matter much more than whether or not that college is a prestigious one—those messages encourage kids to enjoy the race itself and to keep running.

And those are the kids who will actually perform better when the academic, work, or other stress-related chips are down.

Kids are more likely to keep racing if the adults in their lives make the race itself the fun part.

Everyone is homeschooled

According to this KQED piece, in an effort to move the focus away from relentless achievement alone, some high schools, including one in the notoriously driven Silicon Valley, are implementing advisory programs where small groups of students meet with an adult mentor (often a teacher) to help students foster good relationships and find a sense of purpose in their lives.

As the article says,

“Many high school students go through four years of school doing exactly what they are told to do. The work often feels divorced from the real world — a prescriptive set of ‘shoulds’ that adults say will lead to a happy life. But for many students, the end goal of all that work — college or a career — is a hazy future, not a tangible one.”

I think the programs sound fantastic and would love to see them gain popularity. But I couldn’t help but think that these lessons really need to be taught at home.

Parents, if you were to tally the amount of time you spend talking with your kids about all-things-college-admissions—grades, test scores, achievement, tutors, admissions advantages, etc.—and compare that total to how much time you spend talking with them about what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what’s happening in their lives, what they want for themselves, etc.—which area of discussion is dominating your time?

Many parents will point out that teens aren’t inclined to just pour their souls out to their parents. Fair point. But you’re the adult, and you’re their parent. You’re setting the tone for what’s really important by what you choose to focus on and talk about, whether or not they respond immediately.

Many schools just don’t have the resources to allocate to programs like this, and even more teachers have a hard enough job without also assigning them responsibility to teach our kids what’s really important in life. I wish both of those observations weren’t true, and I think it’s long past time for a bigger discussion about what schools should actually be responsible for and how we can better support teachers to actually make the impact they desperately want to make. But whether or not administrators bring this kind of change to your school system, as parents, you can make fast and lasting changes in your home school.

Looking back from the future

Bob Sutton is a professor of management at Stanford and the author of “The A**hole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt.” And while the book is pitched toward helping you deal with difficult people, one of the techniques, shared in this 90-second video (includes colorful language –“viewer discretion advised,” as they say), can help you get through any difficult situation or period, whether or not a jerk is responsible for causing it. It’s called “Temporal Distance” and it works like this: When you’re going through a difficult or stressful time, imagine it’s one day later, then one week later, then one year later. Eventually, what you’re facing right now isn’t quite so upsetting. Looking back from the future makes today seem manageable.

I will admit that the idea struck me as hokey when presented as doing time travel in your mind. But then I realized it’s actually not at all unlike what I’ve recommended in many posts, two examples of which are here and here.

If you’re the type who likes to dig into the research (I am not), here’s a detailed study from UC Berkeley on the effects of Temporal Distance.

For students and parents navigating your way through the college admissions process, remember that the C on the exam, the test score that won’t budge, and so many other things that feel so important today just won’t matter when you’re looking back from the future.

Text talk is for text messages

To the chagrin of language, spelling, and grammar purists everywhere, many best practices in the art of written communication seem to be suspended when writing a text message. Rules and protocols like capitalization and punctuation slow down sending. And it’s hard for many people to justify writing 50 words if 5 are sufficient to get both your message and your meaning through. Given how many of today’s teens do the majority of their written communication over text, it’s no surprise that the truncated style of text talk seeps into other writing.

College applicants, please remember that while it might now be socially appropriate to suspend the rules of capitalization, punctuation, spelling, etc. when texting, that same style is not appropriate for written communication during the admissions process. When sending emails to admissions offices, college interviewers, teachers, counselors, etc., remember that what you put on the page sends a message about you, your writing, and in many cases, how seriously you’re taking both the task at hand and the process.

I’m not suggesting you need to pen a novel-like, publishable piece of work. But you likely wouldn’t talk to these people face-to-face the same way you’d talk with your friends, so don’t write to them that way, either. Pretend your message will be printed and added to your file for future review (that often happens). And save the text talk for actual texting.

Here’s a past post that includes some relevant links to help you write good email messages.

Avoidable public speaking mistakes

I’m blessed to work in a company full of public speakers ranging from capable to truly great. But I’ve been cursed by years of attending conferences, weddings, and other speaking-worthy events where well-intentioned speakers repeat the same blunders. You don’t necessarily have to be a natural-born public speaker to get the job done, but anyone who stands up in front of the room at the very least owes the audience a speech free of easily avoidable mistakes. Here’s my incomplete list.

What’s the point?
Just because it’s interesting to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting to your audience. I recently sat through a graduate school address filled with inside jokes and esoteric references about the fellow students’ favorite candy to binge on during study time and the hue of the lighting in the specific rooms on campus. Those references may have meant something to them, but given that each graduate had at least one family member with them, the majority of the audience had no idea what the speaker was talking about it. As you prepare your speech, keep asking yourself, “Who is my audience, and would they care about this?” A reader can delete an email or skip to the next article. But an audience member is being held hostage. Speakers owe it to them to keep it interesting.

A long list of thanks
Many speakers like to begin with a long list of thanks—to organizers, sponsors, and other people who are rarely siting through the speech themselves. If someone in attendance deserves to be thanked, thank away. But otherwise, just get to it. We’ll thank you for it.

Allow me to introduce myself (for a really long time)
Did the audience willingly show up to hear you speak? Did an organizer introduce you? Great—the audience knows who you are. Skip the introduction and jump right in. If the audience doesn’t yet know who you are, give us the 30-second elevator version of your intro. We’re here, we’re listening, and you’ve got our attention. Spend less time convincing us why you’re worth listening to, and more time actually telling us something worth listening to.

Tech troubles
You can’t help it if the mic goes out in the middle of your talk. But failing to test your mic, your laptop, and any other tech before you get started only to end up troubleshooting live on stage? That’s on you. I recently sat through a speech with two concurrent speakers who spent the first ten minutes trying to get their microphone to work. By the time it did, they’d lost their audience. Test ahead of time and make sure everything works. Even better, be wary of making your speech so reliant on tech that you’re toast if there’s trouble (Steve Jobs once said that people who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint). A tech-free presentation will be tech-trouble-free, too. But if you will rely on electronics or other media, make sure they work before you start.

“And now, I’ll read slide 22 to you out loud.”
If you’re just going to read your on-screen bullet points out loud, cancel the speech, email your presentation, and save the audience the trip.

Going over your time
Don’t do 20 minutes when you’re asked to do 10. Don’t end at 7:45 when you were supposed to end at 7:30. But all the other speakers went long, and I prepared for this! Doesn’t matter. End on time, even if you need to cut your talk short. The great orators of our time may have left audiences thinking, “I wish that speech were longer.” But most of us just aren’t that good. Trust me, your audience will thank you, which is exactly what you want them to do when you finish speaking.

No end in sight
I’ve now been to three weddings where a groomsman’s toast went so long, and so far off course, the bride and groom had to ask him to stop. It was as if those speakers were hoping to meander their way during the talk to find an ending. Wherever you’re speaking, treat attention like a precious, scarce resource. The more of it you demand from your audience, the more likely you are to expend it all. Shorter is almost always better. And if you don’t know where you’ll end, don’t even start.

Refusal to read the room
If you went on a first date and the person across the table was yawing, looking at their watch, and generally looking like they didn’t want to be there, would you take it as a good sign? Probably not. Your audience will tell you how they’re feeling and how you’re doing during a speech. Just look at them. Agreeing nods, responsive chuckles, and enthusiastic note-taking are good signs. Yawns, time-checks, and heads nodding off are not. A less-than-warm reaction might not always be fair or rational. In fact, it might not even be your fault, especially if you’re following several other speakers who committed mistakes on this list. But forging ahead as planned no matter how long it takes isn’t always a best practice. Read your audience and be prepared to adjust as necessary.

Ending with a whimper
The end of your speech is your moment, your time to end on a high note. And yet too many speakers spend too little time preparing for that ending. “So, unless there are any questions, I think that’s all I have. . .” Really? That’s your ending? The end of your speech is the last memory you can give to your audience. Make me laugh, think, reflect, etc. Tell me what you want me to do, change, or notice moving forward. Leave me with something good to remember you and your speech by. Last impressions matter even more than first impressions. Don’t let a whimper at the end ruin all the material that preceded it.