Look for open windows

There’s something about seeing a dog with its head thrusted out the window of a moving car that always makes me happy. It’s pure, unadulterated joy. The destination, the scenery, the weather–none of that matters. Some dogs treat that opportunity like a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream. There’s no ulterior motive, no hope for an outside reward, just a chance to get that head out the window and let the air hit their face. And if windows are open on both sides of the car, might as well trade back and forth as many times as possible. Don’t want to miss anything this fun!

What activity, subject, or other involvement makes you feel that way?

Whatever the answer is, as long as it’s safe and not covered by the criminal code, it’s probably worth finding a way to do even more of it. That’s the kind of passion colleges and counselors spend so much time telling students to demonstrate before and during college applications.

If you want to stand out and have fun on the road to college, when you find an inviting open window, stick your head out and enjoy the ride.


As the November 1 early application deadline for many colleges creeps ever closer, students, parents, and counselors are often on edge, especially with each other. Everyone is busy. The stakes seem so high. The risk of one tiny mistake or one dropped application ball destroying years of work feels so real. It can all bring out the worst in otherwise good, reasonable people.

One way to restore some measure of sanity and civility is to make assumptions. That might sound risky, but assumptions can work wonders when you make the right ones, at the right times, for the right reasons.

Here are a few recommended assumptions to make at this time of year:

Assume that your kids are feeling pressured, measured, and judged at every turn right now (most are). Assume that this is not a happy state in which to exist (it’s not). Assume that, in spite of what might seem like a lack of initiative or an abundance of application procrastination, many kids are simply struggling to manage the first project of real life significance that they’ve ever faced. And assume that with your unconditional love as their buoy, the good kid you’ve raised will find their way at whatever college is lucky enough to get them.

Assume that any querying or outright nagging from your parents comes from a good place. They want you to have everything, and they live in fear of you somehow missing an opportunity and resenting them for not being more involved. Also, assume that while this process really should be all about you (a doctrine that far too many parents break these days), the truth is that like you, they’re feeling judged and measured through comparisons to what other parents are doing for their kids. I know those comparisons shouldn’t matter. But the truth is that most of us never quite get over the insecurity that comes with seemingly falling short. Assume that your parents are human, that they mean well, and that they’ll return to some semblance of parental normalcy after all of this is over. And while you’re at it, assume that you’ll be OK no matter what happens, that your work ethic and character matter more than whether or not you go to a famous college, and that you would be hard pressed to find a grown adult who’s still being legitimately held back because of a grade, test score, or admissions decision that arrived back when they still had pimples.

Parents and students:
Assume that your counselors want what’s best for you and that they’re working like crazy on behalf of you and all the other college applicants at your school. In almost every case, that’s exactly what’s happening. And there’s almost always a reasonable explanation for any evidence appearing to the contrary.

Assume that parents and students who bring their frustration to you, even when lobbed unfairly, are only doing it because they’re stuck. They don’t want to feel this way. It’s not pleasant or comfortable, and those particularly irascible families certainly aren’t enjoying their ride to college. But the college application process and all the associated pressures wreak havoc at home and at school. Assume that many of those people who can be so unreasonable today will be so contrite and thankful for your help when this is all over. Assume that the work you’re doing is both important and difficult (it is). Assume that you and others trying their darndest to do it well are compellingly dedicated professionals (you are). And assume that no matter how draining, frustrating, or otherwise challenging the work may be, you’ll probably head to bed tonight secure in the knowledge that you’re making a difference for someone (and likely for many).

Will those assumptions be true all the time, for every person, in every scenario? Nope. But the assumption exceptions will pale in both comparison and frequency to every assumption that proves true.



What’s your superpower?

The fictional heroes of my youth were “superheroes,” each with an accompanying superpower, like flying, traveling at the speed of light, shrinking down to an infinitesimal size, etc. A few of them seemed to be able to do just about anything (Superman really did have it all), but most had one (super) power they could wield that helped make the group collectively unstoppable.

If you want to stand out, it’s worth considering what your own superpower might be.

If you can fly or turn invisible, your college essay pretty much writes itself. But for the ordinary mortals like the rest of us, your superpower might be that you can remain calm when everyone else is overreacting to a stressful situation. Maybe you know how to stand up in front of a room and get people to listen to you. Maybe you know how to unstick a project and bring it to completion when nobody else can seem to make progress.

We’ve all got them. Once you find your superpower, make sure you put it to use.

Make space for sanity

Ken Anselment is the dean of admission and financial aid at Lawrence University and the father of a high school senior. One of his favorite pieces of advice to share with families going through this process is to set aside one (and only one) time per week when you as a family will talk about college.

“Maybe it’s a couple hours every Sunday afternoon (our family pick; hence “Sundays with Ken”). Maybe it’s Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Whatever. Pick a day and time, and agree that you as a family will reserve serious college talk only for those times. All other times during the week that college might come up (and that’s pretty much the remaining 166 hours), park it and save it till your next meeting. The exception, of course, is if it is urgent. (And it’s usually not urgent).”

You can learn more about the benefits of this in-house policy, and Anselment’s successful implementation of it within his own house, in his piece “Making Space for Sanity in the College Search.”

College reps, consider adding these two sentences

It’s travel season for college reps who are heading to college fairs, information nights at high schools, and other events to put their schools in front of (potentially) interested applicants. Unfortunately, many of those earnest reps are hamstrung by the canned spiels that have been approved by some combination of the president’s office and the marketing consultants, usually resulting in a sales pitch to draw in as many applicants as possible.

If you’re a college rep with even a little wiggle room for creativity and straight talk, why not include some version of these two sentences in your next pitch to students?

“If you haven’t yet considered us, here’s why we might be right for you.”

“If you’re already considering us, here’s why we might not be for you.”

Both of these statements move away from the same-as-all-the-others pitches that encourage any student willing to pay the application fee to apply. They force you to think about what actually makes your institution different. And most importantly, they seek not only to attract those applicants who are more likely to actually attend if admitted, but also to repel those who are just never realistically going to call your school home.

It might not boost your total application numbers. But I’ll bet it gets you a more interesting, committed, and engaged freshman class.

What kind of meeting will this be?

The colleagues at Collegewise who know me best know never to send me an email like this.

Kevin, could you and I schedule an hour of time to chat in the next few days? I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.

All that does is conjure up images in my mind of potential agendas, none of which are positive.

Somebody is leaving Collegewise.

Somebody really let down a customer who’s now upset.

Somebody has contracted the Bubonic plague, etc.

I know this is entirely my fault and that it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way (after all, I could just as easily think, This is probably going to be something great!) And in fact, those vague requests almost never lead to conversations that were as bad as I imagined they could be. But I always appreciate when someone gives me a 1-2 sentence preview of what this conversation will be about, so my mind doesn’t spin from now until the conversation. And I can even start thinking productively about how to make the meeting worth our time.

Given (1) how often students, parents, counselors, and teachers might be emailing each other, and (2) how many of those emails involve a request for a conversation or an actual meeting, it’s worth considering how the request itself colors the recipient’s perception of the impending meeting.

Do you want the meeting to be one that they actively dread? One that they worry could be bad but aren’t yet sure of? One that they’re tentatively encouraged by? Or one that they can actively look forward to and even begin considering how to best help you with your request?

For example, everything about this request leaves the recipient certain that this will not be a pleasant meeting:

We were extremely disappointed to learn that our son will not be placed in AP US History next year. He is a top student and this is completely unacceptable. Please contact us at your earliest convenience so we can address this with you.

And this sounds like a meeting that could go either way:

Are you available to meet this week about our son’s course schedule? We have some concerns we’d like to discuss.

This meeting could be positive:

Our son just informed us that he will not be placed in AP US History next year. We were hoping we could meet with you to get your feedback and to discuss his options, as we don’t want to make any crucial mistakes.

And this meeting sounds like an entirely positive one:

Our son just informed us that he will not be placed in AP US History next year, which certainly didn’t come as a surprise as we know that history was not his strongest subject last semester. But we want to make sure that we aren’t overlooking any available options that might help rectify this. And if there aren’t, we’d love your advice about the best course schedule for him given his college goals.

The way you ask for a meeting affects the likelihood that the meeting itself will be productive.

Bonus tip: Asking for “advice” is almost always a good way to open up meeting possibilities.

One last bonus tip: This goes best when the student, not the parent, sends the email.

Guaranteed return?

Students, as you progress through high school and prepare to apply to college, one question worth asking about the ways you’re choosing to spend your time might be, “Does this investment have a guaranteed return?”

This class, this activity, this opportunity or experience, is it guaranteed to pay you back in some way?

Will it make you happier? Will it make you smarter? Will it help you learn, grow, and discover or enhance your talents? Will it challenge or push you? Will it help you or others? Will it earn you money, credibility, or trust? Will you learn to work with people, to manage complex projects, or to lead?

Or will the only acceptable return be an admission to a college of your choice?

Those two categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s say you’re stronger in your English and social studies classes than you are in the sciences, but you enroll in AP Chemistry anyway because you want to show colleges you’re challenging yourself. For many students, there’s a guaranteed return on that investment whether or not your dream college ends up saying yes. Challenging yourself is good as long as it doesn’t leave you burned out or miserable. And taking AP Chemistry will be like a workout for your brain. The experience will leave you smarter and more prepared for the academics in (any) college. And it might even boost your confidence, too.

But that activity you’re doing that you don’t enjoy, that you don’t really pour your heart into, that you’re really just going through the motions so you can list it on your college application, where’s the guaranteed return?

That summer program you really don’t want to attend but resolved to do because you’ve heard it will look good to colleges, is there a guaranteed return on that investment?

Those community service projects where you’re just showing up to do the bare minimum until you get your 10 or 30 or 100 hours you want to cite on your college application, is that minimal effort actually doing any good for the people, the organization, or yourself?

I’ve never met a student who actually enjoys test prep, and it certainly won’t teach you anything useful other than how to take a standardized test. But there’s a potential guaranteed return if you balance your college list beyond those schools that are reaches for you. Higher test scores will make you more admissible to many (though certainly not all) colleges.

If you don’t see a guaranteed return in what you’re doing, maybe you need a new way of spending your time, a new goal, or both.

Rewards, or punishments?

Parents and counselors who are encouraging teens to make application progress might be interested in a recent study shared in this Harvard Business Review piece, which showed that our brains are more likely to take action to pursue a reward than they are to avoid a punishment.

“Neuroscience suggests that when it comes to motivating action (for example, getting people to work longer hours or producing star reports), rewards may be more effective than punishments…When we expect something good, our brain initiates a ‘go’ signal. This signal is triggered by dopaminergic neurons deep in the mid-brain that move up through the brain to the motor cortex, which controls action. In contrast, to avoid bad things — poison, deep waters, untrustworthy people — we usually simply need to stay put, to not reach out. So our brain has evolved to accommodate an environment in which often (though not always) the best way to not get hurt is to avoid action altogether. When we anticipate something bad, our brain triggers a ‘no go’ signal.”

Instead of focusing on the future punishments that come with failing to make enough progress—stress, encroaching deadlines, the possible loss of admissions advantages at some colleges, etc.—try focusing on the rewards of making deliberate, thoughtful progress, like completing applications long before friends do, enjoying application-free winter holidays, and gaining admissions advantages at schools that evaluate applications on a rolling basis.

It’s not likely to work like a magic wand. But the college admissions process can always use more positivity. If doing so actually motivates the students immersed in it to dig in and make more progress, that’s a bonus in my book.

When the race itself is fun

Yesterday morning, I saw three kids racing each other to see who could get to their elementary school first. Big grins, arms flailing, backpacks bouncing up and down—I’m sure the race injected some extra excitement, but none of these kids appeared to be dreading arriving to school. And the second and third place finishers seemed to shrug it off immediately and bound right inside along with the winner. The race itself was the fun part.

I wonder at what point they’ll stop bounding into school and start running a different race?

Who gets into the AP class, who sets the curve, who gets picked for the lead or the editor or the starting position, who gets the best test scores, who gets into an Ivy League school, etc. That race isn’t nearly as fun. And at many schools, the kids who don’t finish first feel like they’ve let themselves and their families down.

None of us gets to enjoy the carefree days of childhood forever. And I’ve never had a problem with high school kids experiencing work, responsibility, and even the occasional stress that comes along with it. We’re preparing them for life, after all.

But I’d like to believe there’s a way for even high school kids to enjoy school, learning, activities, and preparing for college in such a way that they enjoy just running the race. Praising effort over achievement, focusing on strengths instead of fixing weaknesses, and reminding kids that what they do while they’re in college will matter much more than whether or not that college is a prestigious one—those messages encourage kids to enjoy the race itself and to keep running.

And those are the kids who will actually perform better when the academic, work, or other stress-related chips are down.

Kids are more likely to keep racing if the adults in their lives make the race itself the fun part.

Everyone is homeschooled

According to this KQED piece, in an effort to move the focus away from relentless achievement alone, some high schools, including one in the notoriously driven Silicon Valley, are implementing advisory programs where small groups of students meet with an adult mentor (often a teacher) to help students foster good relationships and find a sense of purpose in their lives.

As the article says,

“Many high school students go through four years of school doing exactly what they are told to do. The work often feels divorced from the real world — a prescriptive set of ‘shoulds’ that adults say will lead to a happy life. But for many students, the end goal of all that work — college or a career — is a hazy future, not a tangible one.”

I think the programs sound fantastic and would love to see them gain popularity. But I couldn’t help but think that these lessons really need to be taught at home.

Parents, if you were to tally the amount of time you spend talking with your kids about all-things-college-admissions—grades, test scores, achievement, tutors, admissions advantages, etc.—and compare that total to how much time you spend talking with them about what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what’s happening in their lives, what they want for themselves, etc.—which area of discussion is dominating your time?

Many parents will point out that teens aren’t inclined to just pour their souls out to their parents. Fair point. But you’re the adult, and you’re their parent. You’re setting the tone for what’s really important by what you choose to focus on and talk about, whether or not they respond immediately.

Many schools just don’t have the resources to allocate to programs like this, and even more teachers have a hard enough job without also assigning them responsibility to teach our kids what’s really important in life. I wish both of those observations weren’t true, and I think it’s long past time for a bigger discussion about what schools should actually be responsible for and how we can better support teachers to actually make the impact they desperately want to make. But whether or not administrators bring this kind of change to your school system, as parents, you can make fast and lasting changes in your home school.