Find out how they got there

Here's a good way to learn more about colleges, majors, and the many paths that can lead to being successful. 

Pick five people who are doing something you find interesting–writing, video game design, sports management, whatever.  If you don't know or can't think of specific people, pick a company that does something interesting to you, visit their website, and find the names of five people who seem to be doing important jobs there. 

Then find out how they got there.

Read their bios.  Google them and find out where they went to college, what they majored in, and what jobs they had before they got here. Connect the dots from where they started and where they are now.

I think you'll find two things:

1.  The line is very rarely straight. 

Most successful people didn't create a scripted 10-year plan to get there.  They got there by working hard and making the most of opportunities that presented themselves along the way.  If you're struggling to name your intended major or career, you might find it encouraging to see successful people who could never have predicted at age 18 what they would eventually do with their lives. 

2.  There isn't a lot of correlation between how successful they are and the relative prestige of their colleges.  

Parents: How do your conversations about college make your family feel?

It's good for families to talk about college.  But be mindful of what you actually talk about when the subject comes up.

If your family often talks about what an exciting time this is, how many great colleges there are, how much your student is doing right, and what an amazing four years your son or daughter is almost certain to have at whatever college is lucky enough to be the one, the conversations will probably make your family feel pretty good.

But all your family talks about are perceived SAT score deficiencies and whether or not a tutor might help eek out an A in trig, if you constantly compare your student to other students and worry about how you'll address his or her weaknesses, if you talk incessantly about whether or not Stanford or Princeton or Georgetown will say yes, your conversations are going to make everyone in the family feel bad.

If all your talk about college just makes the family even more stressed, you don't have to change the subject.  You just have to change what you're saying about it.

Does your high school have a “drop” option?

At most colleges, students can jump in and try a course for a week or two to see if they like it.  If they decide they don't want to take it for any reason, they can "drop" it, meaning they officially drop out of the class.  As long as they do so within the specified limit of the trial period, there are no negative ramifications on their academic records.

It might be worth asking your counselor if your high school has a policy like this (or if a counselor/teacher might allow you to avail yourself of it).  For example, if you're picking classes for next year and you're unsure about AP Chemistry, honors trig, or whether you can really handle an extra class before school, ask your counselor if it's possible to drop the class within a limited time without hurting your record.  If you can, jump in with reckless abandon and see what happens.

It's much better to ask about the option before you begin the course, rather than asking once you get a C- on your first exam.

How to make peace with the college admissions process

As college decisions begin to arrive in the next few months, some students are going to feel that they weren't treated fairly, that other seemingly less qualified students were admitted instead of them. 

It's important to accept that the system of college admissions–deciding who gets in and who does not–is not perfect.  The same can be said of job interviews, first dates, and just about anything else meant to size up complex human beings based on limited information.  This isn't the hundred yard dash where whoever runs the fastest is the clear winner. 

But remember two things.

1.  Every admissions officer I've ever met works very hard to be fair and thorough when they evaluate students.  They believe applicants should be treated with respect and they never make any decision lightly.  While it might feel bitterly personal when they say no, it really isn't. 

2.  Just as most qualified work seekers still end up with jobs and good people still end up in relationships, nice kids who work hard still get into college.  It may or may not be your first choice, but you'll almost certainly get to go somewhere.  

Another reminder for seniors

For seniors, whether you're scheduling a college interview, reserving spaces for a reception a college is holding locally, making arrangements for a campus visit, or even just calling the admissions office with a question, please remember one thing…

Don't let your parents do it for you.  You should be doing these things yourself.  Colleges will notice. 

And parents, unless you're making an inquiry about financial aid (which is fair game for parents to take on), don't hijack these jobs from your kids.  Let them find their own way and show both you and the colleges that they're mature enough to handle these administrative tasks themselves.   

Why seniors and their parents shouldn’t worry

Colleges are making admissions decisions now.  Some early returns have already arrived.  But most seniors will learn the rest of their news in the next 3-6 weeks.  So, exactly how much time should those seniors and their parents spend worrying about it?

None, if they can swing it.

I'm not suggesting you should be indifferent.  But worrying about whether or not your dream college is going to say, "Yes" doesn't do you any good.  If you spent all day every day from now until the decision arrives worrying about it, wishing and wanting a particular outcome, you won't do a single thing to influence the result.  So why do it?  How will all that worrying improve your life?  How many other more productive, positive things could you spend your time thinking about?

Almost everything you did before you applied to college was in your control.  But after you submit your applications, you're no longer in charge.  The most successful students accept that what happens from here is out of their hands.  They'll spend their time dreaming about how great college is going to be, how much they're going to learn and how much fun they're going to have no matter where they go. 

And if their dream school says, "No," they'll bounce back much faster because they didn't spend all their time leading up to the decision attaching themselves to one particular outcome.

A new way to look at senioritis

There's a great exchange in the movie Office Space that goes like this:

Michael Bolton: "You were supposed to come in on Saturday. What were you doing?"

Peter Gibbons: "Michael, I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be."

I completely understand why so many of today's college-bound seniors wish they could morph into the high school version of Peter Gibbons.  You're tired.  You've done the AP classes, SAT prep, college applications, activities, essays, and everything else you're supposed to do to get into college.  You really want nothing more than just to relax and do less, maybe even do nothing.  I think you deserve that luxury.  But you know you just can't do it quite yet. 

Every year, some seniors let the party start too early and end up with one or more of their grades plummeting.  When that happens, the colleges that have admitted you reserve the right to take back their offers of admission.  Then you have to find a new college to go to.  It's an awful experience.  

So here's my senioritis proposal.  Just delay it a little bit.  Keep working for another semester, but plan a summer of senioritis, one in which you carve out three months to do whatever you'd like to do.  

I'm not saying you necessarily should do nothing for the entire summer.  But you could make your summer what YOU wanted it to be.  You could get a part-time job with your friends, play guitar in your band, read a few trashy romance novels and still sleep until noon two days a week when you don't have to work.  You could take a road trip with your friends.  You could finally join that rec basketball league at the gym and just play for fun.  You could rent the DVDs for your favorite TV show you never had time to watch and view the entire second season in one weekend.

Having the summer off is nothing new.  But what I'm suggesting is that you look at this summer as your reward for everything you did to earn the right to go to whatever college is lucky enough to get you next fall.  It will give you an extra something to be excited about and help you finish strong in this one final semester of high school.

Every college in the universe wants its freshmen to show up wide awake and eager to get started on their college careers.  One of the best ways to do that is to catch a serious case of senioritis this summer. 

Sometimes it’s good to hurry

Sometimes the best way to stop stalling, deliberating, second-guessing or looking for the perfect choice is just to hurry up.  Rush things.  Make an artificial deadline.  Do it now.  

If your club needs to do a fundraiser, you could spend your entire meeting letting everyone make suggestions of what to do and still not have a decision at the end of it.  Or you split people up into groups and say, "Everyone has 15 minutes to come up with as many fundraising ideas as possible. We'll pick one before the meeting is over.  Go."

If you've got a snow day off from school, you could pretend that the project you have due next week is actually due tomorrow.  Jump in and do it.

Last month, my colleague Arun and I imagined how much we'd enjoy doing our college essay workshop at the annual NACAC conference, especially if we could recruit two particular admissions officers that we really admire to join us.  But we had that bright idea just 24 hours before the deadline to propose sessions.

That 24-hour looming deadline removed all of the opportunities to come up with excuses why we couldn't do it.  There was no time for writer's block or procrastination.  Arun went to work recruiting, I went to work writing, and 24 hours later, we proposed our dream session–with our dream team–to NACAC.

No idea if the the proposal will be accepted.  But the point is that we went from having a big idea to actually being done in just 24 hours, something we might never have pulled off if we didn't have to hurry. 

Being deliberate is a good thing.  But every now and then, it's good to hurry.