Intellectual humility

It’s hard for an admissions committee not to notice when a student has demonstrated a sincere love of learning. A real love of learning has a lot less to do with the drive to get good grades than it does the genuine curiosity to know more, to understand, to fill in learning’s blank spots. A student who gushes about the joy she finds working through the most difficult calculus problem sets with her fellow math-letes is demonstrating more love of learning than the student who responds to a query about his favorite subject with, “I like math because there’s always a right answer.”

But nobody loves to learn everything equally, and colleges don’t expect that you will, either. That’s why the most appealing students balance their intellectual curiosity with intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is the confidence to admit what you don’t know, to consider different points of view, and even to find something fascinating simply because it’s beyond your comprehension. It lets you admit the absence of knowledge while still respecting the subject. The student who discusses why she loves Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is demonstrating intellectual curiosity. A student who relates how he wanted to read the book but couldn’t get past page 50 because he just couldn’t understand it is demonstrating intellectual humility. And both are demonstrating traits that will help them learn, grow, and succeed in college.

College admissions pressure pushes some kids to focus so much on demonstrating what they know that they lose the joy of discovering knowledge and the comfort with the absence of it. But the most rewarding learning happens when you pair both together.

Learning and growth

Two of the most valuable experiences you can seek, appreciate, and relate on a college application are learning and growth.

Learning and growth take place in lots of forms, and not all of them present as successes or achievements. Teaching yourself to play the drums and then starting a band qualifies, but so does flubbing your trumpet solo due to lack of practice and resolving never to let yourself or the jazz band down again. Overcoming your struggles in AP chemistry is a pride-worthy achievement, but so is bringing your very best effort, meeting with your teacher regularly for extra help, and still scraping by with a C-. Always doing the right thing is wonderful, but so is the sincere apology you offer to make things right after you let someone down. The learning and growth are there in all those scenarios.

Expecting—or presenting—yourself to move seamlessly from one mistake-free success to the next is unrealistic. Learning and growth come in many forms, but that overall forward progress, sometimes in leaps, sometimes in incremental steps, and sometimes to make up for lost ground, is what helps you get better with age. And it’s what makes you an appealing candidate for colleges.

Seek and benefit from opportunities to learn and grow, and you’ll have no trouble presenting yourself as someone who will continue that progress once you get to college.

Learn from what’s worked

One of the benefits of working with talented people you respect is engaging in reasonable debates over complex questions. That happened this week with a group of our managers discussing a potential opportunity for us at Collegewise. There were plenty of smart, plausible arguments on both sides, one of which was that when we tried something not unlike this before, it didn’t go as well as we’d hoped.

But one of our directors, Tara, reminded us: “Stop getting hung up on what didn’t work with your ex. You’ll never be able to move on.”

What great advice.

Sure, you can and probably should try to learn from your failures or mistakes. But those lessons are usually limited to what not to do. The takeaway is inaction, not action. The lessons just prevent you from making the exact same mistake in the exact same situation again. But success, on the other hand, teaches you what to do. You can repeat those actions and the ensuing success. Learning what to do is a lot more useful than learning what not to do.

You can’t become a great quarterback just by learning 100 plays that didn’t work. You won’t make a great dinner just by learning cooking mistakes that ruin meals. And you can’t increase your investment returns simply by avoiding risky investments. Preventing failures is good, but achieving success is even better.

And for that, you’ve got to learn from what’s worked.

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