Fatherhood vs. the SAT

I learned today that a student I counseled through the college admissions process back in 2001 is now married—he and his wife are expecting their first child. 

Back in high school, he was one of those good students who worried a lot—about his GPA, his SAT scores and whether or not colleges would appreciate the community service he’d done.  He worried about the one B he’d gotten on his report card, whether or not his essays would be good enough, and if the colleges really would be able to decode the complex system of weighted grades his high school used.  He was a good kid who worked hard and wanted to go to a good college.   

How much do you think he’s worrying about those things now?

His grade in Spanish, his SAT score, and whether or not UC Berkeley said yes don’t matter anymore.  That’s all part of his high school past.  He's got bigger things on his mind now, like becoming a parent, navigating fatherhood, and saving for his child’s college education.

There’s nothing wrong with a student or parent worrying (a little) during the college admissions process.  Going to college is something that carries enough weight to deserve a little worry now and then.

But you can manage those worries a lot better if you remember just how insignificant most of them seem one day.

There’s a reason nobody’s ever said:

“My wife gave birth to our first son today.  I really wish I’d gotten a higher score on the math section of the SAT back in high school.”

If you want to make sure you get a job after college…

In today’s economy, a lot of families are understandably worried about students’ job prospects after college.  I constantly see articles online about the majors with the best job placement and highest starting salary (guess what—none of them seem to agree).  

If you really want to improve your odds of a successful job search after college, here are five things I’d start learning how to do in high school.  Pick a few (or try them all).  Then use the opportunities in your college years to get even better at them. 

1. Learn to sell.
A lot of people think selling is icky.  But if you’re really good at sales and your track record shows it, you’re always going to have a job.  The best sales people don’t cost money for a company—they make money for the company.  If you work on the school newspaper or on the yearbook staff, take on the job of securing advertising.  If your club needs donated goods for the annual fundraiser, make that your job.  And don’t you dare let your parents sell the programs for the lacrosse team or the candy bars for the student council for you.  Get out there and sell them yourself.  Selling isn't easy.  It’s hard work and it can be demoralizing.  That’s what makes the people who are good at it so valuable.

2. Learn to write really well.
Writing is now many peoples’ preferred method of communication.  You simply can’t afford not to be good at it.  Clear writing is evidence of clear thinking.  If you can write a persuasive cover letter to HR, you’ll stand out during the job search.  And you’ll always bring something of value to whatever company you work for when you can write a convincing email to a reporter or some punchy copy for a company newsletter.

3. Learn accounting.
Do you like numbers?  Take a business accounting class at your local community college, one that teaches you how to read a profit and loss statement.  As a bonus, try to find a course that teaches you how to make and manage a budget for a small business.  It's hard to envision a place of work that doesn't have to manage money, pay employees, and make sure their tax returns are accurate.  All of those things depend on good accounting.

4. Learn how to keep computers working.  
If you can diagnose and fix computers, servers, and even networks, that’s a great line to have on your resume even if you’re looking for a job at an art gallery.  Sure, large companies have dedicated IT staffs to keep things working.  But at smaller companies, the one worker who actually knows how to diagnose problems and fix them, even though it’s not her job, is bringing a lot of value to the workplace.  She's also saving the company potentially thousands of dollars in costs for outsourced IT support.  

5. Learn how to do good work.
The best way to get a good job is to be really good at your last job.  And it’s surprising how many college grads have never worked before and think that a college degree alone will make them stand out.  I think every high school kid should get a part-time job at some point before you graduate.  Not a fancy job filing at your mom’s law firm, but a regular teenage-kid-job like bagging groceries or flipping burgers or selling clothes at the mall.  You learn a lot about what you’re good (and not good) at, and what it takes to be successful.  Thrive at one job and you’ll have an advantage when you look to move on to your next one.  Have a string of successes by the time you graduate from college and you’ll be ahead of the competition.  

Now, before you write off any of those as not being applicable to your field of interest, I’d just remind you that people who make yoga mats for a living still need to sell them.  Computer engineers still need to write emails and even proposals.  The head of a non-profit agency needs to know how to read a financial statement and balance a budget.  Anyone who uses a computer would benefit from knowing how to keep it working properly.  And since everyone leaves college hoping to get a job, previous work experience benefits every college grad.

Which tests to take and when to take them

My friend Paul Kanarek at The Princeton Review just wrote a piece to help students decide which standardized tests to take and when to take them.  As is typically the case with anything Paul writes:

1) It's excellent.

2) I had to look up at least one word to find out what it meant.

He gave me permission to share it, and you can download your copy here.  

How to train people to listen to you

When I was a freshman in college at my first official fraternity meeting, one of the older guys (who’s now a pediatrician), said to me:

“Kevin, I want you to notice something.  There are some guys here who always have to say something about every issue we talk about.  Watch what happens whenever they talk.”

The lesson became obvious pretty fast.  Whenever the talkers spoke, everyone just tuned out.  The talkers had trained the group not to listen to them. 

The guys people paid attention to were those who listened more than they talked, who weren’t afraid to contribute but did it when they really had something to say that was different from what had already been said.  Whenever they talked, everyone tuned in and the room got quiet fast.  And almost without exception, what they had to say was more insightful. 

It's fine to answer a question in class and be wrong.  It's fine to suggest something in a meeting that gets shot down.  Never be afraid to contribute.

But don't become one of those people who talks so much that you train people not to listen to you.  The more you listen, the more they'll listen back.  I still forget that sometimes, and it’s one of the best lessons I took from college. (Thank you, Dr. Mike).

Don’t hide

It’s scary to risk suffering the pain and embarrassment that can come with failing.    You might:

…try your best in AP chemistry and not do well.
…run for junior class president and lose.
…suggest an idea for a French Club fundraiser that raises almost no money.
…try out for varsity basketball and not get picked.
…apply for a part-time job and not get hired.
…put your hand up and give the wrong answer in your math class.
…fail the AP Euro test even though you studied really hard.
…share an idea with your club that the president shoots down.
…not quite hit the high note in your sax solo.

All pretty rough, I admit it.  So you have two choices. Take the risk, or hide and play it safe.  But before you decide, remember:

1. Nobody ever died from failures like these (motorcycle daredevlis and bullfighters are a different story and beyond the scope of this blog).

2. You’ll never stand out by hiding.

Colleges will always be more impressed with kids who have the guts to try and the maturity to learn from it when they fail.  Don’t hide.  Put yourself out there and go for it.  You’ll either be successful or you’ll learn and move on.  Either way, you’ll be smarter and braver.

Change your college planning mantra

Too many students (and by extension, their parents) plan for college with the mantra,

“If I get into my dream school, everything I’m doing will be worth it.” 

That’s a terrible mantra.  You’re putting all the power in the hands of the colleges and totally ignoring all the long-term benefits of pretty much everything you’re doing. 

Here’s the mantra I’d repeat over and over again:

“If I work like I want to go to my dream school, it will be worth it no matter who admits me.”

That mantra lets you care a lot about what you’re doing without letting prestigious colleges alone decide whether your time, work, energy, passion and personality are impressive enough to be admitted.  It lets you be pleased with your effort when you study like crazy for a trig midterm even if you get a “B-.”  It lets parents praise and appreciate their kid for being a good kid who works hard and is nice to other people, whether or not he has high SAT scores. 

And most importantly, it keeps you focused on developing your work ethic, curiosity, interest in learning, and character, all of which will play much bigger roles in your future success than whether or not the college you attend is a famous one.   

You can’t have fans without critics

Every time I write a blog post about parents stepping back and letting their kids take charge, I get at least one email from a parent somewhere who argues that it’s her right to be as involved as she wants to be.  They’re entitled to their opinions, but we’re never going to see the college admissions world the same way.

What we do and how we do it turns off some people.  The irreverent tone of our website, the fact that our kids bang a gong when they submit applications, our steadfast belief that you don’t have to go to a famous college to be successful—everything we do will inevitably make a lot of people look for college counseling someplace else.  But isn’t that better for them and for us? 

Being open and direct about what we stand for makes it easy for the right people to appreciate us and for the wrong people to disqualify us.  When we’re not trying to please everybody, we can spend our time trying to delight our customers who appreciated us enough to join the family.  If we let them down and they complain, we’d better listen.  But most other people, we can ignore. 

Whether you’re a business or a kid in high school who loves programming computers and playing the cello, you can’t have fans without a few critics (even Apple and The Beatles aren’t universally loved).  Listen to the people who appreciate and understand you.  And don’t worry so much about the rest.

When I’m happy to be the dumbest

Being the dumbest person in a room full of smart people is actually a great place to be.

Whether it’s a class, a club, a parent meeting or a counselor gathering, if the rest of the group seems smarter than you, don’t be ashamed.  Instead, enjoy the opportunity.  Learn as much as you can.  The more often you put yourself in those situations, the smarter you’re going to be.

What would happen this semester if…

…you didn’t answer your phone, open emails, or check Facebook while you studied?

…you raised your hand at least once a day in your favorite class?

…you took on a big project nobody else in your club was willing to do?

…you only talked about people as if they were there in the room with you (no bad-mouthing)?

…you quit an activity you were no longer enjoying and replaced it with something you really wanted to do?

…you made an extra effort to appreciate your parents?

…you congratulated other students who did well on a test, or had a great performance in the school play, or scored the winning basket?

…you studied for the SAT and accepted whatever score you got as long as you knew you’d tried your best?

…you let your parents do less for you and took on more responsibility for your college planning?

…you were nice to the kid who nobody else is nice to?

…you worried less about getting into a prestigious college and more about finding the right one?

Seems like it could only lead to good things.

Amplify what already worked

Here’s an idea for a New Year’s resolution—amplify something that worked last year.

If English was your best class last year, what could you do to make that class even better this year?  What if you made an effort to contribute more to the class discussion, or talk to your teacher after class about the books, or turn in a draft of your essays before they’re due to get feedback before the final draft?

If you're the editor of the school paper and your sports editor is doing a particularly great job, how can you give her even more opportunities to do what she's doing?  What could you and the rest of the staff learn from her example?

If you’re a parent and you were especially supportive of your student when she was struggling in trig, how could you give that kind of support even more often this year?

If you're a private counselor and your business grew last year, what did your clients seem to appreciate most about you and your work?  Did your students finish applications early?  Did you make "C" students excited about their college prospects?  Did you schedule your meetings at even more convenient hours?  How could you find ways to do even more of those things this year?

If you’re a high school counselor and you had kids who would never have applied to college successfully without your help last year, how could you get to those kids even earlier this year?  How much more could you do with them?

If you’re a college and two of your admissions reps increased application numbers from students in geographic areas where you don’t normally get a lot of interest, how could you give those reps a chance to do more of their best work?  What could they teach the rest of the team about finding the right applicants for your college?

If you run a school and your enrollment of new freshmen increased last year, what did you do differently?  How could you do even more of it this year?

Instead of just trying to fix flaws, you might have more success if you amplify what already worked.

Have fun and be safe tonight.  Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!