Good reassurance

Some families want to measure every potential decision based on its perceived college admission value. Would it be better to go to a summer program or to volunteer? Which leadership position would be the most impressive? Should I edit the yearbook or audition for the school play? Making informed decisions that satisfy colleges’ stated requirements is good planning. But making every decision against an imagined rubric where colleges label some choices as inherently more valuable (to them) than others is not only letting someone else make all your decisions for you, but also guessing—often incorrectly—what the decider thinks is important.

What many of these families are seeking is reassurance. They want reassurance that this is the right choice, that they will not regret it. They want some sort of proof that everything will be OK. It’s completely natural to want this. But the problem with reassurance is that it’s not a renewable resource. As soon as you receive it, it’s gone. It doesn’t last. If you’ve ever checked your pockets a dozen times for your passport or your phone or your wallet—just to make sure it’s still there—you’ve experienced this. If you’re a family who seeks lots of admissions information and advice but never feels better after receiving it, you’ve experienced this. And if you’re a counselor who feels like you repeatedly answer different versions of the same questions from the same family, you’ve experienced this.

If you’re used to seeking reassurance, it’s a hard habit to break. But if you recognize it as a habit, and you want to break it, one way to start is to accept that no amount of reassurance will ever be enough. Seeking it just perpetuates both your need and the cycle of seeking.

And the more difficult but ultimately liberating realization is that you can find your own reassurance. You know if you’d rather go to a summer program or volunteer. You know whether you’d like to edit the yearbook or audition for the school play. You know which leadership position actually appeals to you based on the change you’d like to make within that organization.

You still can’t be sure everything will be OK (we really never know that). But you know what’s important to you, you know what the factors are, and most importantly, you know the person making the decision. That’s good reassurance.

Are results everything?

It’s easy to justify a lot of behaviors, particularly during the college admissions process, by pointing to one result.

Your ACT score went up five points. You earned a 4.0 GPA. You got into the college of your choice. What’s more important than those results?

What if those 50 hours of prep cost your family more money than they could afford? What if you spent less time doing something you love like playing the clarinet? What if you alienated your teachers and fellow students with a get-an-A-at-any-cost mentality? Were the side effects worth it?

Don’t just consider the results. Consider the side effects, too.

Acting as if

You probably see roles or opportunities that you wish were available to you. Team captain, shift manager, a valued team member or trusted confidant or even a leader. Whatever the goal, you’ll reach it faster if you start acting as if.

How would a team captain behave before they were actually the captain? Here’s what they don’t do—wait in the background, more concerned with their own success than they are the team’s, but resolving to change that behavior if they get the captain’s nod. The path to becoming the team captain is to behave like one.

I’m not suggesting you usurp or undermine existing authority. You’re not acting as if you’ve already been elected club president. You’re acting as if you were someone who will one day be elected club president. What does that person do, today, tomorrow, and the week after that? Whatever the answer, that’s where you want to go.

You learn, you get experience, and you demonstrate your potential when you’re acting as if.

Like they were in the room

Here’s a quick but effective way to improve the mood, trust, and overall team health of your group—talk about people like they were in the room.

Your club, your organization, your counseling office–wherever you and others come together to do work you care about, make the decision to talk about people as if they were there in the room with you. Don’t drag one person’s work or reputation through the coals just because you think their absence brings you immunity. When you disparage someone who isn’t present, you’re not just doing damage to them. You’re damaging your reputation. You’re damaging morale. And you’re damaging the mutual trust and respect that’s vital to the health and success of any group.

It’s simple, it’s free, and best of all, it’s your choice.


A student applying to college is trying to communicate:

I’m ready and excited for college.
I’ll make an impact inside and outside of the classroom.
I’m resilient enough to forge through difficulties.
I’ll take full advantage of the opportunities available to me.
I’ll enjoy learning from and interacting with the faculty.
I’m prepared for the independence of college.

How do you think those messages land if you also communicate:

But when I have a question for the admissions office, my parents always call for me.

The more involved parents are in the college admissions process, the less involved the student is. And that message is incongruous with everything a student is trying to communicate in their application.

Who did you help?

In this podcast, Adam Grant discusses his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success and cites three data-proven reasons that successful givers are ultimately the most successful overall in an organization.

1. Social capital benefit
Everyone wants to work with givers because they go above and beyond and do things that are not in their job description. They are sought out. When you have a choice about who to work with, you ask for them. They’re the people you trust to be your subordinate or your boss. They just have better reputations.

2. Motivation
Givers have more meaning in their work because it contributes to something larger than themselves. The time they spend trying to support other people and help them gives them a sense of purpose.

3. Learning
The time you devote to helping other people solve their problems helps you solve the organization’s problems.

If you want to feel more fulfilled, achieve more success, and yes, impress colleges, try spending less time asking yourself, “What did I achieve for myself today?” and start asking, “Who did I help today?”

Put on a show

During her 30-year career teaching high school English, my mom used to say that great teaching was theater. She never felt like just explaining Shakespeare or Chaucer or Twain would make the desired impression on the classroom full of teens. If you wanted to get and keep their attention, you needed to put on a show.

It turns out we all have opportunities to turn our performance up by putting on a show of our best selves.

You’re selling raffle tickets to a fundraiser. You can sit behind the desk and wait for willing raffle enthusiasts to arrive. Or you can stand up and spend the next 20 minutes trying 40 different pitches to entice those passing by. Guess which way will teach you something about sales and inevitably lead to selling more tickets?

Your teen tells you they’re tired of taking piano lessons. You can defend the lessons’ value and cite how much money you’ve already invested in piano perfection. Or you can put on a show and use the conversation as an opportunity to really listen to what your student is thinking and feeling. The show opens up the door for more understanding and maybe even to your student asking you for advice in the future.

You’re headed to a faculty meeting during the busiest time of the year, with papers and to-do’s and a million other things you could get done during this time. But if you’re going to be in the room anyway, what’s the best show you could put on to make the time better for you and for everyone else?

Putting on a show isn’t about being disingenuous. It’s recognizing that this moment, this interaction, this question or meeting or insight–it matters. It can move things forward. But not without someone acknowledging and capitalizing on the opportunity.

When you do this enough to make it a habit, it won’t take long before you’re known for always making things better whenever involved. And that’s never a bad reputation to have when you’re looking to stand out.

Make it count. It’s showtime.

Leadership litmus test

The simplest test of whether or not you’re a leader:

1. Are you causing a change to happen?
2. Are people willingly joining you to help make that change?

Authority and titles don’t make you a leader. People doing what you tell them to because they have no other choice doesn’t make you a leader. Maintaining the status quo by doing the same things in the same ways doesn’t make you a leader.

Making change happen, and bringing willing people along for the ride—that’s the real test.

Delayed gratitude

Here’s an easy formula for showing gratitude in a way that’s certain to make an impact.

First, express your thanks (here’s some advice on how to do it well).

Then set a reminder (use a calendar or an app) in the future based on when you think you’ll have something to show for the help you received. Extra help in a class might mean a reminder five days from now, right after the big exam. A letter of recommendation for college might mean a reminder five months from now when you know where you’ve been accepted. Advice on your college savings strategy might mean a reminder one or two years from now when you know how much you’ve saved and how much it’s grown.

You can see the punchline coming.

When the reminder does its job, reach back out to the person who helped you, thank them again, and tell them specifically how the advice has benefited you.

A second, delayed expression of gratitude extends your goodwill. It makes it more likely that the person will help you again in the future. And it’s just a nice thing to do.