You first

Here’s another trait you’ll notice about students—and adults—who are successful at getting where they want to end up. They go first.

They don’t wait for someone to ask. They don’t wait until it’s broken, or someone’s upset, or until there’s just no option left but to finally do something. They just step up and go. First.

Raise your hand. Reach out. Offer to help. Volunteer. Fix or change or improve something. Step in. Take responsibility. Make the choice to go first before that choice is taken away.

You can call it showing initiative, being proactive, leading, etc. But it almost always boils down to just going first.

Best of all, anyone—from the A student to the C student—can do it.

You can even start today. Go first.

Time, attention, and care

We’re currently hiring for a number of open positions at Collegewise. And every time we do, we’re in the lucky position to receive dozens—often hundreds—of applications for each opening. Even after we delete those who clearly didn’t read the ad (many of whom appear to be applying for an entirely different job at a different company), we’re still left with far more qualified applicants than we can possibly hire. But no matter how big the volume of interest may be, we try as best we can to remember that behind each application is a real human being who sat down and took the time to show an interest in us.

Applying for a job can be a demoralizing experience for even the most qualified applicant. Often, companies don’t bother to respond or even acknowledge the application. And if communication arrives to share news that the applicant was not selected, it’s often impersonal, recycled messaging.

When people are reduced to electronic files that show up in an inbox, it’s easy to forget that there are human beings behind those PDFs. We think that if someone shows us the consideration of investing time and attention into an application, one that shows they were genuinely interested in our job and not just a job, we owe them not just a personal and thoughtful consideration, but a reply that reflects just that, no matter the outcome.

Seniors, as you receive your decisions from colleges, especially those who asked you to invest a lot of time and attention writing essays, securing letters of rec, interviewing, etc., you should know that while the communication may not be personal, the evaluation most certainly is. We have dozens of former admissions officers working at Collegewise who recount their time poring over every application, every letter of rec, every essay, just to make sure that each application was given a fair and thorough read. They tell us about the committee discussions, the (often heated) debates as they lobbied for their chosen admits, the joy they felt when a kid they knew deserved it got the nod, and the frustration of knowing that a student they were sold on would still be getting bad news.

Admissions decisions often don’t make sense to outsiders. People might tell you that it’s an arbitrary, almost random process. There’s some truth in the claim that admissions isn’t an exact science. But every admissions officer I’ve met or had the pleasure of working with was someone who took their job and their responsibility to applicants very seriously. The adults behind the decisions never forget that there are kids behind the applications.

It’s a personal and sometimes imperfect process. But you can almost certainly be sure that the people making the decisions are doing so with time, attention, and care.

Why present perfection?

I’ve often tried to remind students here that, even in the application eyes of the most selective colleges, perfection is not a realistic goal. Humans have weaknesses, flaws, and things in this world that we’re just flat out not good at. And even more importantly, acknowledging those imperfections is a lot more endearing than presenting a picture to the world—and to colleges—that’s just too perfect to be true.

This month’s edition of the Basecamp podcast tackles this very topic from the perspective of individuals, businesses, and even email communication. As they say in the introduction:

Imperfections are real, and people respond to real. Sometimes being genuine can count for a lot more than being perfect.

Here’s the link for those who’d like to listen.

Self-feedback first?

Do you want honest, useful feedback to help improve your performance, presentation, assignment, etc.? Not applause to tell you how great you are, but advice that will actually lead you to the outcome you’re hoping for? One way to get it might be to evaluate yourself first, and to be critical when you do.

This month’s issue of Wharton professor Adam Grant’s newsletter suggests that you preface your request for feedback by acknowledging your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s a technique he’s used with his students, and witnessed in one of the most successful executives in tech.

“I’ve watched Sheryl Sandberg [COO of Facebook] do this so effectively. As she became more senior in her career, she noticed that people were more reluctant to criticize her. So she started opening meetings by talking about what she was working on. A common one: ‘I know I can speak too much in meetings—please tell me if I am.’ Suddenly her colleagues felt safe giving that feedback, because she asked for it. And after the meeting, she followed up to get more feedback.”

Parent/student roles

Parents, as college decisions arrive for your applicant in the house, eliciting everything from jubilation to (temporary) despair, the single most important thing I can remind you is this:

It’s not happening to you. It’s happening to your student.

You may feel thrilled, upset, angry, confused, frustrated, etc. on their behalf. That’s completely normal considering you’ve spent the last 18 years raising this young person. And I would never recommend that a parent disengage or present as if they’re unaffected by any of the news.

But please remember your job during this potentially stressful time is to be the parent of a college applicant. To do that job effectively requires that you distinguish between two very different roles—the parent and the applicant.

To play your role well, you have to let your student play theirs.

Actions lead to answers

Collegewise is getting ready to roll out some new offerings within our programs. Not new services—we’re still doing all college counseling, all the time. But we’ll be adding new versions of how many hours people can buy with a counselor, how many applications we’ll assist with, and how much total time a customer will spend engaging with us. One issue of debate which has taken a surprising amount of time has been what to name each of these new suites of services.

When asked to weigh in, my feedback was:

  • Don’t pick something confusing.
  • Don’t pick something our counselors or our particular customers will feel silly saying out loud.
  • Don’t worry too much about this—we can always change it if it doesn’t work.
  • And most importantly, don’t assume that we know the answer.

The truth is that we won’t know anything until we put the new offerings with the new names in front of potential customers. They get to decide with their conversations and their pocketbooks.

Will they even care what the names are? Will they be confused by them? Will the names change their likelihood of buying or telling a friend about what they’ve bought? Will this help or hurt our business? Will any of this matter at all?

We can debate all we want to. We could ask people in our lives or hire a firm to set up focus groups. And none of it would be anywhere near as useful as just testing it and seeing what the decider—the customer—does.

When you’re inside your own business, school, organization, etc., it’s almost impossible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes who’s outside of it. Rather than guessing, debating, focus-grouping or otherwise trying to predict what those outsiders will do, just make the choice. Then let them tell you through their decisions whether you made the right call.

Their actions will point you towards the right answer.

18-hour days?

18-hour work days would be a grueling schedule for even the most driven adult. But it’s a sad stage of high school affairs if that’s the norm for teens, as this sobering article reminds us.

“Our kids are exhausted and burnt out, and yet we just keep piling on the tasks and raising the admission requirements for their future. We think, ‘They’re 16, 17, 18 years old! They can handle it, they’re young!’ No, they can’t handle it, and they’re telling us in droves by way of breakdowns, therapy sessions, and mental health prescription treatments, all of which they’re way too young to be having to experience in the first place.”

In their shoes before their inbox

If your school, company, organization, etc. regularly sends emails to a list you maintain, here are the two most important questions to consider before you hit “Send.”

1. Did the recipients specifically ask for this email?

That’s a different question than “Did they provide you with their email address?”  You don’t like getting spam, and neither do the people you’re about to email.

2. Is this information they want to receive, or just information you want to send?

Just because it’s important to you (your announcement, news, sale, etc.) doesn’t necessarily mean it’s important to them.

Put yourself in their shoes before you put your email in their inbox.

What happens to high school valedictorians?

After graduation, valedictorians aren’t the most likely to succeed

Why valedictorians rarely become rich and famous — and the average millionaire’s college GPA was 2.9

Why your good grades won’t help you change the world

These are just a sampling of some of the articles published after Eric Barker released his book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

As stated in the book:

“There is little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent [of valedictorians followed in one study] are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. They are reliable, consistent, and well-adjusted, and by all measures the majority have good lives. But how many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear; zero.”

Before looking at what the research showed, it’s worth questioning some of these working assumptions. First, much of the research cited in the book is from one study released over 20 years ago. Second, is it reasonable to use “changing the world, running the world, or impressing the world” as the benchmark for valedictorian success? Aren’t they putting enough pressure on themselves even as teenagers? And finally, maybe we shouldn’t be quite so dismissive of people who are reliable, consistent, well-adjusted, successful, and happy. Those sound like pretty good outcomes to me.

But the book does raise some interesting points about exactly what’s required of a student to become a valedictorian, and just how those traits do and do not translate to the real world.

Barker lays out two primary reasons for his claims that valedictorians don’t reach the same top-of-the-class success in life after college.

First, schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. They’re told that earning top grades in rigorous classes is the most important factor in college admissions. They’re told that rising to the very top of their class is a noble pursuit. And while it may not be stated explicitly, I imagine they receive consistent messages that doing these things will have a far-reaching impact on their likelihood of success long past the release of their grades this semester. It’s not surprising that high-achieving kids will pursue the very achievements defined by the adults who supposedly know what we’re doing.

And second, Barker points out that school rewards the student who is a generalist and can earn A’s in every subject, rather than the student who has a true passion or expertise that dominates their time. That seems like a reasonable point to me. If you want to be a valedictorian, you can’t get so swept up in your love of playing the cello or learning karate or reading books that it gets in the way of earning top grades. Even an academic passion can’t really dominate your time. No matter how much you may want to dive in and learn even more about European history or Shakespearian plays or calculus, the pressures of your other classes—and your commitment to earning A’s in all of them—dictate exactly how much time you can afford to spend on any one interest.

So, what’s a smart, reasonable reaction for a student at or near the top of the class who might read this study and wonder if all their time and effort are worth it?

First, students should never discount the value of the traits required to earn top grades. You’ve got to be goal-oriented. You have to work hard. You have to be disciplined, focused, and able to manage a reasonable amount of stress. Those are good qualities to have no matter what your measure of success now or later might be. Those traits, much more so than whether or not your GPA stays perfect, are what will ultimately have the most influence over your future success. The right behaviors are a lot more important than the specifics of the outcomes.

But it’s also important to occasionally take stock in your personal fulfillment, engagement and happiness. While you’re earning these top grades, make sure you also regularly consider:

Do you have a favorite subject?

Do you have a favorite teacher?

Do you get enough sleep to function?

Do you have good relationships with your family and friends?

If asked to name three positive things that happened to you yesterday, could you do it?

Do you generally wake up looking forward to the day?

Can you name at least one subject you really wish you could learn a lot more about (doesn’t have to be academic)?

Do you regularly enjoy activities or hobbies that have nothing to do with getting into college?

Are you excited about the opportunities that are waiting for you in college?

Have you had at least one good laugh in the last week?

If you regularly consider those questions (or others like it) and find you’re responding with too many no’s, it’s worth considering the extent to which your pursuit of all A’s, all-the-time, is responsible.

Extremes are rarely a healthy, responsible, sustainable path. I wouldn’t recommend that a student blow off school entirely so they can pursue their love of video games any more than I would endorse a student whose pursuit of a perfect GPA has left them anxious, sleepless, and depressed.

But if you make the laudable decision to spend the time and energy required to get top grades, be thoughtful about exactly why you’re doing it. You’re better and smarter than “everybody told me to.”

On seniors slacking off

The cyclical nature of college admissions can bring a sense of recurring deja vu to counselors…and to bloggers. No matter how frequently we’ve been here before, there are students and parents who are experiencing it for the first time. We get questions we’ve answered (often many times) before. Our answers will be new to one audience, but old news to another.

So with apologies to long-term readers, I’ve received many questions about Senioritis, how serious it can be, and whether or not allowing your grades to slip is reasonable cause for a college to take away their offer of admission. For those who are first-timers and weren’t reading this blog a year ago, I’m re-sharing last year’s post, “Can seniors afford to slack off?” I hope it and the associated links within it give you the information, and maybe even a touch of encouragement, you need.