Five second semester reminders for juniors

For the college-bound, the second semester of 11th grade is arguably your most important semester.  Here are five tips to help you make it count. 

1.  Take the SAT or ACT at least once.

Leave the fall of senior year to re-take a test if necessary, but not to take it for the first time. 

2.  If you're ever going to get the best GPA of your life, this is the semester to do it. 

If you're legitimately working as hard as you can in school, good job.  But if you haven't done as well in the past as you could have, here is your chance to show colleges that you're getting better with age.  If you need them, here are five things you can start doing tomorrow that will get you better grades.

3.  Pick one or two classes where you believe you can give a great performance and then deliver it. 

That will give teachers good stories to tell in letters of recommendation.

4.  Evaluate your activities and make sure you're actually enjoying them. 

Colleges are going to ask you what your most meaningful activities were.  If you're doing things just because you think you should, that doesn't lead to good answers (or to a fulfilling life outside of class).  You might even consider quitting an activity and that's not fulfilling and replacing that time with something you want to do. 

5.  Keep college admissions in perspective. 

There's nothing wrong with hard work and even an occasional late night.  But it's important to remember that applying and getting accepted to college shouldn't feel like being locked in a life and death struggle.  Some people are going to treat it that way, but please don't be one of them.  I would challenge anyone to find a smart, motivated kid whose life was forever damaged because his dream school said, "No."  Work hard, be nice to other people, and get more excited about the opportunity to attend college than you do about one particular school.  I promise you'll be fine.

College counseling done the wrong way

One of our Collegewise families got a letter in the mail this week that started:

You and your student, Kevin, are scheduled to participate in an educational group presentation followed by a personal interview to help determine college admission and financial aid eligibility. 

Colleges are now identifying prospective students as early as the 9th grade for admissions and financial aid assistance.  Therefore you need to attend in order to receive assistance in making critical decisions that will arise in the next few months.  Kevin's future is too important not to attend. 

Kevin's interview will take place either Saturday, February 5 or Sunday, February 6, 2011.  These may be the only dates we have available for Kevin this school year, so call or log on to make your appointment today. 

We told them to toss it.  

I have no issue with a company doing a free workshop at the end of which they tell the audience more about their services.  We've done that, and there's nothing wrong with it. 

But you still have to be honest about who you are and what you're doing.  When you're not, you leave it open to interpretation.  If you try to interpret this letter, at worst, this is a huge scam and really no different than the "Help me move my fortune from Nigeria" email.  At best, it's a company that preys on fear ("…you need to attend in order to receive assistance in making critical decisions…"  "Kevin's future is too important not to attend") and is passing themselves off as something other than a for-profit business.

I'm sure the woman who signed her name to the letter would take issue what that.  But–no surprise–there is no email address or other contact information for her.  If you go to the company's website, you can't find any information about who's running the place.  You can't get a straight answer about what they do, who you work with if you hire them, or what the real agenda of this free workshop is.

Correction 1/27/11:  The website included in the letter was not the same as the their corporate site, which did include the information mentioned above.  But I had to find it by Googling the company's name.  If your marketing makes you feel the need to make it hard for people to figure out who you are, you need different marketing (or a different company).   

Parents and students, don't trust a private counselor, tutor or test prep company whose pitch makes you feel scared, guilty or inadequate.  There are plenty of those emotions going around already in college admissions, and the harder a company works to exacerbate them, the less likely they'll work hard enough to make you feel better when you hire them.

And to the private counselors out there, we have to be better than this.  We're in an unregulated industry with absolutely no barrier to entry.  There are plenty of good people doing what we do who want to help kids and do a good job.  The best thing we could do for families and for our industry is to be so undeniably good, so unquestionably committed to running fair and honest businesses that the differences between us and the people who send these letters will be obvious.

“Everybody is doing it”

"Everybody's doing it" is rarely a good reason to do things, especially in high school.  And the way you prepare for college is no exception. 

If everybody else has tutors in four subjects and a year-long program to prepare for the SAT, it's easy to feel that you should do the same thing.

If everybody else is talking about "doing some community service for college apps," you might start to feel like you should find an easy, non-committal community service project where you can accrue some hours.

If everybody else is stressed, sleepless and waiting for an admission to a highly selective college to make the last three years of academic boot camp worth it, you might take on that same attitude.

If other parents talk incessantly about their connections at an Ivy League school who are "very influential" (those reportedly influential connections almost never are, by the way), you might feel like you're failing your own kid by not knowing the right people. 

If everybody else wants to go to the same 25 colleges, it's understandable why you'd start to believe that those must be the only 25 colleges worth attending.

But like virtually any action motivated by peer-pressure and the fact that "Everybody's doing it,"

1) Just because everybody is doing it doesn't make it a good idea.

2) You're almost always better off ignoring what everybody else is doing and instead making your own informed decisions. 

What if none of this mattered for college admissions?

What if all colleges were exactly the same, and everyone were guaranteed a spot in one as long as you graduated from high school?  Whatever your GPA, whatever activities you did or didn't do, you'd get into the same college everybody else gets into. 

What would you change about your life if none of this mattered for admission to college? 

Your answers say a lot about you, your motivation, and just how many of your decisions are being driven by what you think colleges want you to do.

With the exception of preparing for and taking the SAT/ACT (which nobody likes to do), the most engaged students aren't spending their time trying to please colleges.  They're taking difficult classes, studying and participating in activities because that's what they really want to be doing. 

They have enough faith in themselves to know that their future isn't dependent on an admission to one particular dream school.  They're living much of their high school lives as if none of this mattered for admission to college.   

And they're standing out because of it.

What schools, businesses and organizations can learn from Southwest Airlines

Time Magazine ran a story today about a Southwest Airlines pilot delaying his departure of a full airplane so they could wait for a grandfather who was trying to get to his grandson's funeral.  The article points out that this was a courageous decision, as the pilot risked the wrath of angry travelers who might end up missing their connections at the next stop. But I didn't think his decision was all that surprising.  Not only was it the humane thing to do, but Southwest Airlines doesn't let corporate policy get in the way of doing the right thing. 

From page 289 of Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.


I can’t anticipate all of the situations that will arise at the stations across our system.  So what we tell our people is ‘Hey, we can’t anticipate all of these things.  You handle them the best way possible.  You make a judgment and use your discretion; we trust you’ll do the right thing.  If we think you’ve done something erroneous, we’ll let you know…without criticism, without backbiting.  We never jump on employees for leaning too far in the direction of the customer."

Herb Kelleher
Former CEO of Southwest Airlines 

That pilot knew that as long as he was doing what he thought was the right thing, Southwest Airlines would have his back.  That's the kind of place where people like to work.

How I wish colleges would do tours

Touring colleges is an important part of any student’s college search.  It’s just too bad so many colleges’ tours are so ineffective.

Here’s your typical college tour.  Parents and students are led around the campus by a polished, rehearsed student who tells them that the library has two million volumes, the average class size is surprisingly small, and students can study abroad.  Tour ten colleges, and I promise you that at least nine of them will say those three things.  So while students still get to see the campus and breathe in the atmosphere, the only real insight they pick up from the tour is whether or not they liked their tour guide.

Given that so many colleges seem alike to the college researcher, I think schools are missing a huge opportunity to stand out and make a memorable impression on the students who are most likely to apply and later enroll.

If I ran tours at a college, here’s what I’d do.

1.  Understand that your job isn’t to sell the school to the group.  It’s to help the visitors make good decisions about whether or not your school might be a good fit.

2.  Accept that you’re not for everybody.  Once you do that, it will make it easier to do #1.

3.  Let the tour guides design the tour based on what they think students would want to see and learn about. If your ten tour guides do ten slightly different tours, that’s good.  No cookie cutter tours.  Sure, they’d have to get their versions approved.  But if you’re terrified that your tour guides would say something inappropriate, you either need new tour guides or you need to start trusting the ones you’ve already got.

4.  At the end of the tour, separate the students and parents.  Let the students go to a room staffed by five undergrads who take their questions for the next 30 minutes.  And here’s the important part.  Empower those five staffers to tell the truth.  Have them say to students,

“Our job isn’t to sell you on our school; it’s to help you make the best decision for you about whether or not you might enjoy spending four years here.  So for the next 30 minutes, you can ask us any questions you want to, and we’ll answer them honestly.  We won’t be telling our bosses or your parents what you ask us.  This will probably be your only chance throughout your college search to get honest answers from someone at a college who isn’t trying to sell you anything, and we hope you’ll take us up on it.”

Do the same thing with parents, but make the panel a mix of faculty and staff.  You could have two professors, an academic advisor, a counselor from the health center and someone from the housing office.  Bonus points if the panelists have their own kids in college (any college).

5.  Have the visitors fill out evaluations of their visit.  And I don’t mean long forms where they have to choose  statements like “strongly agree” or rate the tour from 1 to 5.   Just come out and ask them what they liked most, what they liked least, and give them space to write.  Add a space at the end where they can ask a question that wasn’t covered on the tour, and invite them to leave their email address if they’d like it answered.  Have the tour guides reply with answers within 24 hours.

It wouldn’t be easy.  It would take guts to make the change.  But imagine the impression you’d make.

And more importantly, don’t you owe it to your prospective students?

New year’s resolutions for students and parents

One year ago today, I posted some recommended new year's resolutions for high school students and their parents.  This seems like the right day to revisit those (some resoultions are worth remaking every year)

For students…

1. Be excited about the opportunity to go to college…any college. I'm not saying you should give up and just be happy with any college that takes you.  I'm saying that if you decide there are only three colleges where you could ever be happy, that puts an awful lot of pressure on yourself.  The hard work you're doing in and out of school shouldn't just be about trying to get into Stanford.  It should be about learning, finding your passions, and enjoying your teenage years.  Wherever you go to college, you're going to meet new people, learn and have fun. That's reason enough to be excited.  So, keep working hard, but try to enjoy yourself while you're doing it. 

2. Quit something worth quitting this year.   Almost everyone has something in their life that's not making your life any better, something in which you're just going through the motions, or that's actually making you unhappy or unhealthy.  Identify one of those things in your life and quit.  Quit it today and replace it with something that improves your life.  If you used to love swimming but now you secretly dread it every day, quit and take the art classes you've been dying to take.  If you're tired of hanging out with kids who aren't nice to each other, quit the group and find nicer friends.  The message here isn't to quit and do nothing.  It's to replace the thing you quit with something more positive and productive.  Happy and successful people do that all the time.

3. Stop getting caught up in high school drama.  Some parts of high school are wonderful.  Other parts, not so much–like the popularity contests, backbiting, and social insecurity.  The happiest and most well-adjusted students I've met don't engage in the negative dramas of high school.  They're happy being themselves and don't care what other people think of them.  They're nice to the kids other students aren't nice to.  They don't gossip or speak badly of their friends or worry about what's popular.  It's hard to disassociate from the social dramas of high school, but you'll be much happier if you do.  And believe me, once you get to college, you'll see for yourself just how petty a lot of the bad parts of high school really were.

4. Do more things for yourself that your parents have been doing for you.  When you make your parents do things for you that you can and should be doing for yourself, you're making it easy and maybe even necessary for them to run your life.  If you're having trouble in a class, don't make your parents contact the teacher.  If you have scheduling conflicts, don't make your parents talk to your counselor to resolve them.  If you have questions about a college's application requirements, don't make your parents get that information for you.  These are things you can and should be doing for yourself.  So start doing them.  You'll be happier, your relationship with your parents will improve, and the colleges will be appreciative of your independence. 

5.  Look for ways to make an impact. One of the best ways to feel good about yourself (and frankly, to get into college) is to find ways to make an impact.  You don't have to be the captain of your soccer team to host the team dinner.  You don't have to be the smartest kid in your English class to participate and contribute to class discussions.  And you don't have to be the editor of the school paper to take a journalism class over the summer and then share what you learned.  Titles, leadership positions and awards aren't the only ways to demonstrate that you're valuable and appreciated.  If you make efforts to contribute and try to make an impact, you'll feel good about how you're spending your time–and people around you will take notice.    

For parents…

Why not capitalize on the annually-renewed sense of self-improvement that comes with the New Year and make some resolutions that will help you not just survive, but actually enjoy your student's ride to college? 

Here are my top five college admissions-related resolution suggestions for parents.

1. Put college admissions in perspective. Your student's college future deserves to be taken seriously.  But if you're panicked because your son scored 1900 on the SAT and "that's just not good enough for Princeton," you've lost sight of the big picture.  Going to college is important.  Going to a famous college is not.  Don't make the acceptance into one particular school the end-goal.  Instead, celebrate your student's opportunity to attend college–any college.  Recognize it as just one step in what will be a lifetime process of education, growth and life experience.   And while you're at it, pat yourself on the back for raising a good kid who's college bound.     

2. Spend more time celebrating your student's strengths than you do trying to fix weaknesses.  The pressure surrounding college admissions often breeds far too much focus on kids' weaknesses.  "Her test scores are low."  "Her GPA isn't high enough."  "She doesn't have enough leadership."  Focusing too much on weaknesses just hurts kids' self-confidence.  Don't forget to celebrate strengths, victories and other achievements that are worthy of parental pride.  Is she great at her job at the daycare?  Is he well-respected by his peers at the church youth group?  When she didn't get the lead in the school play, did she cheerfully offer to run the lights instead?  You know your kid is a good kid–so take the time to acknowledge the reasons why.  And remember that a GPA, test score or decision from a particular college do not measure your student's worth (or your worth as a parent). 

3. Don't run with the wrong crowd.  Some parents seem intent on turning the college admissions process into a status competition.  These are not the parents you want at your next dinner party.  They talk about how many hours of community service their kid has done and how expensive the SAT tutor is that they're housing in the guest room this summer.  They ruin the ride to college for everybody and, sadly, they don't ever seem to find any joy in this process, even when the most desirable schools say "yes."  So don't join in.  Associate with other parents who care more that their kids end up happy in college than they do about whether or not those schools are Ivy League schools.  They're more fun to be around at dinner parties anyway.

4. Encourage your student to take responsibility for her own college process.  Being a supportive parent is something you should be proud of.  But you should resist the urge to do things for your student that she can do herself.  College-bound kids need to develop their own initiative and independence if they want to get in and be successful at college.  Let your kids approach teachers when they're struggling in class.  Let your kids talk to college representatives at college fairs.  Let your kids fill out their own college applications and write their college essays.  Parents can be supportive partners, but you shouldn't take over the process. 

5. Enjoy this time as much as possible.   The worst part of the frenzy surrounding the college admissions process is that it ruins what should be an exciting time for both parents and students. You're only going to go through this process once with each kid.  So enjoy it.  Resolve to find the joy in it.  A positive attitude won't make things like the SAT go away, but it will help you revel in the parts that should be fun, like visiting colleges, discovering new schools that fit your student well, and watching kids make the transition from home room to dorm room. 

Happy New Year…

One resolution suggestion

If you're making New Year's resolutions this year, I just have one suggestion for you:

Make sure at least one involves maximizing a strength, rather than fixing a weakness.

A lot of resolutions address perceived shortcomings like, "Lose 10 pounds," or "Stop biting my nails."  It's never bad to make changes that will improve your quality of life, but why not promise yourself to get even better at something you're already good at?

If you love writing, make a resolution to take a college writing class or to write a short story this year.

If you're a hockey player with a great slap shot, make a resolution to practice until you have the fiercest slap shot in the league this year.

If you're saxophone player, pick three songs that are too difficult for you to play now and promise to learn them this year.

If you're really good with people, promise to find a job or activity in which you work in or lead a team.

If you love math, why not resolve to follow a math class at MIT online, or to learn more about a famous mathematician, or to deliver your best student performance in trig this year?

If you really enjoy helping people, find a community service project that will actually let you do more than just file papers, like working closely with the residents at a shelter for abused women or volunteering with a mobile health care unit that visits the poorest areas of your town.

If you love doing magic tricks, start doing shows at kids' birthday parties.

If you're a cross country runner, pick a local 10K race that's open to the public and try to finish in the top 20 or top 10.  Or go all out and try to win it.

There's plenty of honor in spending time getting even better at something you're already good at.  It feels great.  And the most successful, fulfilled people are those who maximize their strengths.  Why not use at least one resolution to maximize yours this year? 

Creating a pocket of greatness

Some people believe they can’t make a difference in their organization unless they’re in charge.  They think that unless they’re the CEO of the company, or the superintendent of a school, or the president of their club, they’re not empowered to do those things that would really make their organization great.

Jim Collins is a professor at the Stanford Business School who’s written several books about the workings and leadership behind great companies.  His website has several articles and MP3s in which he discusses his work.  Here are two pieces I found addressing the question of whether or not you really need to be in charge to create greatness.

“For many people, the first question that occurs is, ‘But how do I persuade my CEO to get it?’ My answer: Don’t worry about that… each of us can create a pocket of greatness. Each of us can take our own area of work and influence and can concentrate on moving it from good to great. It doesn’t really matter whether all the CEOs get it. It only matters that you and I do. Now, it’s time to get to work.”

“Take responsibility to make great what you can make great.  And let others do it in the areas that they can make.  And if the whole company doesn’t do it, you can’t change that. But you can take responsibility for your area.”

10 holiday reading recommendations

If you've got some downtime during the holidays and are looking for a good read, here are ten of my favorites from 2010 that I thought might pique the interest of students, parents or counselors.   

BornToRunBorn to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougal

A tribe of Indians in Mexico who routinely run up to 200 miles wearing homemade sandals–and they do it because they love it.  It's a good reminder for students that you can accomplish some pretty incredible things when you love what you're doing. 


Rework Rework
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

For counselors, it's a great book about how to run a better business (or department) and get more work done in less time.



HowToBeAHighSchoolSuperstar How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out)
Cal Newport

I don't agree with the central message of the book that any student can somehow follow a program that leads them to greatness (as evidenced by his examples, superstar students become that way by not following a formula, but by pursuing their real interests).  Still, pages 51-76 about study habits and time-management should be required reading for all high school students.  

Linchpin Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
Seth Godin

I'm a Seth Godin fan and I admit that I was a little disappointed after my first read of this.  His discussion of the lizard brain in all of us and how it rises up to sabotage us felt a little too much like it belonged in the "Self-Help" section of the bookstore. But it stayed with me enough that I've since read it again and I think that if you can hang in there through the lizard discussion, the central message of the book is a crucial one–you don't need anyone's permission to do great work and make something happen.  If you're not doing it, what are you waiting for? 

MeatballSundae Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing out of Sync?
Seth Godin

Another Seth Godin book I'd recommend to any business owner.  The internet has changed not only what people buy, but also how they buy them (remember when people used to pay a travel agent to find good travel deals?).  And yet a lot of business are trying to sell the same old stuff using the newest marketing.  That's a meatball Sundae.  You don't just need new marketing–you need new stuff.

LessStressMoreSuccess Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond
Marilee Jones and Kenneth R. Ginsburg

While the first half of the book offers up sound, practical advice for parents from a former Dean of Admissions at MIT, the second half is complex discussion by a psychologist that read too much like a textbook to me.  Still, I'd recommend (the first half of) the book to parents. 


DebtFreeUDebt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents
Zac Bissonnette and Andrew Tobias

A must read for the cost-conscious college shopper.  It's also got the best, most thorough critique of the US News college rankings I've ever read.




DeliveringHappiness Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
Tony Hsieh

Zappos founder Tony Hsieh is a pretty fascinating guy.  He's a serial entrepreneur who's been starting businesses since he was in elementary school, and this is his story of how he built Zappos, what the company stands for, and how they've managed to revolutionize selling goods on the internet.



MadeToStick Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Chip Heath and Dan Heath

After I read this book, I had to go back and re-write all my seminar descriptions and rethink how I present information in talks.



MyAppetite My Appetite for Destruction: Sex, and Drugs, and Guns N' Roses
Steven Adler

To make my list all about business and college admissions would be a) taking myself too seriously and b) not entirely representative of what I read.

Steven Adler is the former drummer from Guns and Roses.  There is not a single productive takeaway for students, parents or counselors (other than, well, don't do heroin)–this one is all trash.  But reading books like this is the closest I'll ever get to being a rock star.  I read Slash's autobiography, too.  

And while I'm at it, I've also got a subscription to People Magazine.