It’s not about the total hours

I’ve met a lot of high school students who could benefit from embracing the message in this piece, The Outwork Myth. Just make sure that you understand the message before you take it to heart.

The message is not that hard work isn’t important or that people who become successful don’t get there without working hard.

The message is best captured in this paragraph:

“Hours are never the differentiator — it’s never about working more hours than someone else. It’s about the decisions you make. How you spend your time, what you do and don’t do. Especially what you don’t do. You’ll have more opportunities to waste time than use time. If you’re going to measure hours, the ones worth measuring are the ones you don’t waste, not the ones you spend.”

Here are some high school examples.

One student spends ten hours over a weekend studying for exams. But those ten hours also included constant interruptions to respond to text messages, answer phone calls, check social media, etc. Another student finds a quiet corner of her local library, turns her phone off, and spends the next three hours relentlessly focused—uninterrupted—on what’s she’s doing. She leaves completely prepared and free to get on with her weekend. The former student might claim that she worked harder—after all, she swore off the entire weekend! But the latter student spent less than half the time and left even more prepared. The total number of hours they spent doesn’t correlate with their results. What was far more important were the decisions they made about what to do—and what not to do—with that time.

A student who does a third or fourth round of test prep to eke out a few more points may have spent more hours preparing for standardized tests than many other applicants. But that decision comes at a price. What did she give up during that time? What else could she have been learning or impacting or leading during that time? Would those opportunities have made her happier, and more likely to be admitted to—and successful in—college?

Counselors also see the “hours spent” focus come up all too often with community service. Some students are entirely focused on accumulating as many total hours as possible. But those students who genuinely care about what they’re doing, who want to make a difference and actually help the people they’re volunteering to serve, they tend to be a lot less likely to lead with their total number of hours spent when you ask them to tell you about their volunteer work.

Yes, many colleges do ask students to list the number of hours per week and weeks per year that you spent engaging with each activity you list on an application. But it does not mean that the applicants with the highest totals for hours spent get an automatic admissions advantage. Colleges do this as one way to get a clearer picture of how you’ve spent your time, and more importantly, what you cared about most. They’ll also look to your descriptions of those activities, your honors and awards won, your essays, letters of recommendation, and interview to get a better sense of the impact that you made within these activities.

Total hours spent is just one measure of anything that you do. And it’s almost never the most important measure.

See past the decisions

This week, applicants began receiving their early application news from colleges they applied to. That means lots of jubilation, heartbreak, and in some cases, confusion over decisions that, to someone who wasn’t in the room when the decision was made, might not seem to make sense. Many of our Collegewise counselors reached out to their early applicants in advance to remind them that over the course of a student’s lifetime, the day this decision arrives will be just another day. We promised to be the first to celebrate good news or to shrug off bad news, reinforced that their work ethic and character are what will make them successful, and expressed our faith in them no matter which college they attend.

What was surprising and encouraging was just how well those messages were received.

Our words weren’t magic medicine that removed the stress entirely. But in almost every case, when the counselor reminded individual students of their particular strengths, when we encouraged them to think long-term rather than view this news as a defining moment, and most importantly, when we expressed our belief in them no matter which colleges say yes, the responses we got back were appreciative, with a sense that their spirits had been lifted and their outlook adjusted.

I mention this here to encourage parents and counselors to help students see past these decisions. Lead by example and by words. If the news isn’t good, don’t immediately begin strategizing or second-guessing. Don’t do an application autopsy in an attempt to locate what went wrong. Don’t obsess about who got in and why. That behavior just reinforces that this is a life-defining day when, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not.

Instead, remind them how much they have to offer and to look forward to wherever they go to college. Reaffirm your faith in them. And help them see past the decision today. What’s waiting tomorrow promises to be far more interesting.

Why not try it?

When I started Collegewise in 1999, my parents had just moved to Switzerland where my dad had taken a new job. Months earlier, I’d booked tickets to spend a week with them over the Christmas holiday. And while this is hard to imagine today, internet access wasn’t necessarily reliable or even available everywhere. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance, so I resolved to have my nine seniors done with their applications before the holiday break—theirs and mine. I wanted them to be completely wrapped up so that I could safely detach during the holiday without leaving anyone in the lurch.

There was no plan to necessarily continue this practice for the future. I had no idea what the future even looked like for Collegewise at that time. But I knew that if I were going to enjoy my holiday, I needed to get those nine seniors wrapped up.

It worked. And it still works for us today.

Over seventeen years later, while there may occasionally be a straggler here or there who needs to come back in January for a final review, just about all of our seniors head into the winter holiday with all their applications submitted. It’s one of the most compelling promises we make to families. And it’s one of the benefits they appreciate most about our program.

Imagine if we had never gotten into that habit. If we’d always worked with kids throughout the holidays (as much of our competition does), how might our leadership and our counselors respond if one of us proposed, “Let’s finish all of our seniors before the holiday break.”

As much initiative and gumption as we have, I imagine that most of us would be skeptical.

That will never work.

We have too many kids.

There’s too much work to do in too little time.

None of our competitors do this.

It’s overpromising something we can’t necessarily deliver.

It’s understandable why we’d feel that way, but we’d all be wrong. We’ve been proving it since 1999.

The next time someone in your club, part-time job, counseling department, or other organization proposes an idea that inspires a lot of naysaying, ask a few questions without judgment.

  1. Would it be worth doing if it did work?
  2. How can you know for sure that it won’t work?
  3. What is the smallest, most risk-free way you could try it?
  4. What’s the worst that would happen if it didn’t work (that’s why question #3 is so important)?

And if you can find satisfactory answers to those questions, you’re only left with one.

Why not try it?

Five holiday reads to reduce admissions stress

The best way to reduce college admissions stress over the holiday might be not to read (or talk) about it at all. But if you can’t quite turn off the college worries and just need some outside reminders that everything will be OK, here are five worthy holiday reads.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
Paul Tough

Tough argues convincingly that character traits (perseverance, curiosity, optimism, etc.) are much better predictors of success than test scores are.

Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes”
Madeline Levine, PhD

What should a good parent be doing? How do you judge your success? Levine lays out the research to show that the new parenting end-game of good grades, high test scores, and college acceptances is producing a generation of exhausted kids who define themselves by their last performance. But more importantly, she also gives parents the tools and the confidence to redefine success and raise mature, healthy, and yes, successful adults.

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success
Julie Lythcott-Haims

A former dean at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims saw firsthand just how much damage overparenting does to kids, to parents, and to society. And as a mother herself, she somehow manages to show compassion and understanding for overparenters while remaining resolute in her argument that there has to be—and is—a better way.

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
Frank Bruni

Do you feel like the college admissions process is out of control with all the focus on tutors and test prep and who gets in where? Bruni agrees, and reminds readers that successful adults emerge from lots of colleges that aren’t prestigious, and that a high school student’s entire future isn’t decided by one grade, test score, or admissions decision.

The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living
Amit Sood, MD

The college admissions process doesn’t have the market cornered on stress. In fact, Dr. Amit Sood has spent his professional life studying the root causes of stress and shows readers not only why our brains are wired to search for what could go wrong, but also how to manage those worries and appreciate all the good that life serves up day to day. If you’re a parent who, in spite of your best efforts, can’t quite seem to stop worrying long enough to actually enjoy watching your student go through the college admissions process (believe me, it can be done), Sood’s book will give you the tools to get a lot closer to doing so.

Common sense never goes out of style

While waiting at the beginning of a five-hour window for a service tech to repair my washing machine, I answered a call from the repair company. A recording played confirming my appointment and said, “If you would like to track your technician and see the estimated time of arrival…”

I perked up. What a great idea! I’ll know when the tech is due to arrive and won’t have to sit around wondering.

Except what followed was an offer to visit a web URL that was—and I’m estimating here—at least 35 characters long, including several backslashes and one dash. This wasn’t a voicemail I could listen to again. This was a recording on a call that I’d answered, and there was no option to repeat the information. Even if I’d been prepared with a pen and paper at the ready, I’m not sure I could have scribbled furiously enough to capture the URL successfully.

Somebody in that company made the decision about what that outgoing recording would say. Does any rational person really think that a customer could successfully write that down, much less remember it? If not, or if they just didn’t care, why offer the option if all it’s going to do is frustrate people?

Whether you’re running a counseling business, working in a high school, creating (and evaluating) college applications, applying to the colleges of your dreams, or serving as the treasurer for the high school Latin Club, it’s hard to understate the value of just thinking things through. Does this action you’re about to take make sense? Would you appreciate it if you were on the receiving end? If not, what would you do differently?

The world might be an increasingly complex place, with information and technology progressing faster than at any time in our history. It’s hard to keep up, even for the savviest of us.

But just plain common sense never goes out of style.

Is your older sibling applying to college?

If you’ve got an older brother or sister in the house who’s going through the college application process, you might feel like the only thing you can do is watch passively from the sidelines until it’s your turn to apply. But there are actually things you can do to help your sibling now, and yourself later. Here are five suggestions.

1. Use this time as an opportunity to learn.
One of the most useful parts of watching an older sibling apply to and eventually attend college is that you can learn from their experiences. Now, you might not be all that interested in tuning in to hear them talk about tests or applications or essays. But someday not all that long from now, you’ll be immersed in your own college search and application process. Anything you learn now can only make you savvier when it’s your turn. In fact, I’ve seen many students reference their older siblings’ experiences when essay prompts or interviewers ask why the applicant is interested in a particular school.

2. Be patient with your sibling and your parents.
You might have noticed some changes in your family over the last few months. Are they more stressed? Does it seem like all they talk about is college? Does it feel like some members of the family have lost their focus on what you’re doing? Not all families experience this kind of admissions-related stress and anxiety (in fact, we preach at Collegewise that the process doesn’t have to be that way). But it’s very real for those who do, and it’s not uncommon for some shrapnel to land on the younger siblings. It’s not fair, but the good news is that it will pass. And when it’s your turn, you’ll get your own doses of attention (hopefully with less anxiety). So if you can, be patient with your sibling and your parents.

3. Be your sibling’s respite from admissions talk.
One of the best things you can do for your sibling is not talk about college at all unless they bring it up first. For many of you, this might not be a stretch, especially if you’re absolutely sick of hearing about essays and applications and deadlines all the time. But I mention it here because it’s good to know when any of us are actually doing something helpful for someone we love. Don’t feel like you’re failing your sibling if you default to talking about football, movies, music, or whatever else you’d talk about outside of college season. Be the sibling you’ve always been, not yet another person in their life who’s fixated on college.

4. Celebrate their admissions decisions.
This is advice that we give to parents all the time. An offer of admission from a college, even one from a college that’s not high on a student’s dream list, deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated. And parents aren’t the only ones who can really lift an applicant’s spirits by joining in. When an acceptance arrives, be excited for your sibling. Offer sincere congratulations, a hug, a high-five–anything at all that shows you’re happy for your big brother or sister. They might act like they don’t care at all what you (or your parents) think. But trust me, they’ll notice (and remember) it.

5. Consider how you want your future process to look.
Watching an older sibling go through their own college process is like a sneak preview of what yours could be like. But brothers and sisters are different people, and there’s no law saying that you have to approach the process the same way. Which parts of your sibling’s process looked enjoyable? Which parts looked difficult? What would you do the same, and more importantly, what would you like to do differently when it’s your turn? For example, you might think that traveling to visit colleges looks like an exciting thing that you’ll partake in when it’s your turn. But if you watched your sibling frantically struggle to complete their applications in time for the deadlines, that’s probably something you’d like to avoid. The more you use this time to observe, to learn, and to consider what you want your college process to be like, the more likely you are to get the experience you want when it’s your turn.

Everybody isn’t doing it

Parents know (and remember!) what peer pressure looks like for kids. They want to fit in. They want to be accepted. They don’t want to be singled out. “Everybody’s doing it” can be a persuasive teen argument even when it’s not true.

But peer pressure also exists for parents, especially around college admissions. And if you’re the parent of a high school student, you’ve likely seen, heard, or experienced it. But just in case, here are a few examples:

You’ve got to start test prep early these days.

Northwestern really likes leadership, so we’re lining up some positions for our son.

It’s just so competitive these days. Kids need to stand out to get into a decent college.

We have friends on the board who’ve promised to tag her application.

The summer leagues are the best place for coaches to see these kids.

He’ll have over 100 hours of community service, so we’ll have him write his essay about that.

Get her out of that class if you can. That teacher is terrible. Our son got a “C” because she didn’t like him.

You’ve got to have a private counselor. The counselors at school don’t know anything.

Yes, this might sound like run-of-the-mill college talk for engaged parents, but it’s not. It’s parental peer pressure. Those words are telling you:

We’re doing something for our student that you aren’t doing for yours.

Our student has an advantage that your student doesn’t.

We have insight that you don’t have.

We’re taking this more seriously than you are.

We’re doing it right—you’re doing it wrong.

Like teen peer pressure, parental peer pressure capitalizes on the fear of not fitting in. Do you want to be the one parent who didn’t listen? The one parent who watched your student fail? The one parent who could have and should have done more, but didn’t?

There’s a difference between a trusted friend, one with a sincere interest in your student, offering perspective, advice, or encouragement and that parent who makes you feel bad about your family’s approach to the college admissions process.

Peer pressure makes teens do things they otherwise don’t want to do. Don’t let parental peer pressure do the same to you.

Instead of caving in, do what you’d tell your kids to do.

Don’t listen. Don’t engage. Don’t let them make you feel bad. Do what feels right for you (and your student), not what someone else tells you is best.

And if the pressure is unrelenting, it’s possible you’ll need to find new friends (or minimize your interactions together until after the admissions process is over).

I’ve watched hundreds of families go through the college admissions process. And I have never once heard any of them say at the conclusion, “What helped most was all the unsolicited information and advice we got from our friends.”

You know your student better than your friends do. And the reality of whatever you’re being pressured to do is that everybody isn’t doing it.

The particulars of today…and tomorrow

Yesterday, I stumbled across a LinkedIn profile of a Collegewise student I haven’t spoken with since he finished our program almost 15 years ago.

I remember him well. He wasn’t at the top of his class (or of the arbitrary high school social ladder), but he had good grades, participated in some activities, and most importantly, was the consummate happy, good kid. He was nice to his classmates, well-liked by his friends, and polite to his parents, teachers, and counselors. He was both interested and interesting, two characteristics that usually go together. And while both he and his family clearly believed his education and his future were important, they somehow managed to stay above the admissions frenzy that gripped so many families at his private high school. They knew this good kid—with his work ethic, character, and interests—was going to be just fine no matter where he ended up.

Fast forward 15 years later.

Today, he’s an associate creative director at one of the world’s largest advertising firms (I recognized nearly all of the major campaigns that he’s written). He’s also one of eight members of a sketch comedy group whose monthly shows, featuring their own original material, have sold out for three years running. And on December 31, he’s getting married. Life is good for this grown-up good kid.

While the particulars are unique to him, the story is not. Kids get into college. They grow up, find their way, and maybe even find that special someone and start a family of their own. This tale has a happy ending without a surprising twist.

But so many families can’t see how much they and their kids have to look forward to in the years to come. They’re too focused on that ACT score that still hasn’t cracked 30. They’re hoping that more tutoring can turn that B+ in pre-calculus into an A-. They’re agonizing over whether it’s more volunteer work, a leadership position, or a summer program that will give them the edge for admission to a dream college.

Not all of that focus is bad. We all have to balance dreaming about tomorrow with focusing on what we have to get done today.

But when that focus ruins what should be an exciting time for a family, when it causes undue stress and anxiety, when it leaves kids feeling like the only way they can be validated is by getting a “Yes” from a college that says “No” to most applicants, it’s time to worry less about the particulars of today and have faith in what will become the particulars of tomorrow.

This former Collegewise student’s alma mater? Boston College. If memory serves, it was not his first choice. But he was thrilled anyway. And his positive outlook meant that he probably would have felt the same way attending any college on his list, even one of his safety schools.

Beware of application creep

“Feature creep” is continually adding new features to a product in the hopes of improving it and appealing to more customers, but ultimately resulting in something complicated and difficult to use, often impairing its ability to do what it was originally designed to do. That software program that forced you to upgrade, where the new version has bells and whistles that you didn’t want, didn’t need, and just don’t like? That’s feature creep, and it’s ruined a lot of previously good products.

Some applicants—and just as often, their parents—fall prey to application creep, especially in November as deadlines are inching closer. Why not add a few more colleges to this list, just to be safe? Why not send this extra letter of recommendation the college didn’t ask for, just in case it helps? Why not have just one more person give us feedback on the essay, if their suggestions could make a difference? A little more, a few more tweaks, one or two more suggestions implemented—eventually, you stop improving your application. And you start impairing its ability to do what it was designed to do.

Your application, with its accompanying parts like essays and letters of rec, is a product. It deserves enough time and attention to make it as strong as possible. But like feature creep, all those additions done in the hopes of making your product better eventually start to chip away at something that was previously good.

Those additional college applications mean more work for the student, the rec writers and the counselor (all of which chips away at the quality of your other applications). That extra letter of recommendation just chips away at the admissions officer’s patience and attention span. That one additional source of essay feedback just chips away at whatever is left of the student’s voice in the essay, leaving something that reads as if it was written by a committee (because now it has been!).

The best products do what they’re designed to do for the people they’re designed to do it for. They don’t try to please every potential customer, and they don’t implement every suggestion. Your college application is designed to help each particular college evaluate you as an applicant. The admissions office has spent months refining this particular product to do what it is designed to do, for exactly who it was designed to do it for. Help that product do its job.

Follow the directions. Use the space and the prompts to clearly and proudly tell the college who you are and what you’ve done. Take the time to do your best work on the applications for those colleges that really interest you. Don’t fire off last minute additional applications to schools you know nothing about. Don’t send unsolicited materials. Don’t get third and fourth and sixth opinions on your essays. Instead, focus your time and attention on helping each product do the job it was designed to do.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes, but your counselor is the best judge of those exceptions, not your friend, neighbor, or anyone else who doesn’t work in the college admissions field.

Don’t assume that more applications, more input, or more features will make your application better. These products work very well already, especially when you take the time to use them properly.

Trade the usual for the unexpected

I was on a flight recently where the attendant’s pre-flight announcements were anything but the usual.

“Welcome to flight 1402 to Cleveland [the flight was not to Cleveland]…Just kidding! But now you’re aaaallll looking up at me!”

The rest of his patter was just as unexpected. And I didn’t see a single person sleeping or looking at their phones. Nobody wanted to miss whatever he was going to say next.

It’s hard to get someone to pay attention when it’s the same as it was before that (and before that, and before that). But unexpected is new and exciting.

It’s not about shock value. It’s about caring enough to not just repeat what’s always been done.

So, the next time you’re planning a school dance, meeting with a student, or writing a college essay and start to feel stuck in a rut, like you just can’t get people to sit up and take notice, try trading the usual for something unexpected.