Artificial stakes

Last week, my wife and I took our son to his preschool orientation. Not surprisingly, the event was age appropriate. Ten minutes of remarks (for the parents) followed by 90 minutes of playground time (for the kids).

What I kept thinking the entire time was just how pure school is at his age. There’s no talk of GPAs or test scores. No stress about which AP classes are offered. No concern over whether or not he’s choosing activities that will stand out on his college application. And when fellow families asked me what I did for a living, nobody saw it as an opportunity to get college admissions advice for their two-year-old. It’s preschool. It’s new. It’s exciting. It’s fun. And as we were driving home, my son said, “I miss my school.”

Sadly, I wonder at what point in his schooling he’ll stop missing it when he’s not there. Or even worse, maybe even start dreading it.

I realize my preliminarily relaxed preschool experience isn’t the same for everyone. But for most parents, this is the relative calm before the future storm. Not tomorrow, not next year, but eventually, the talk and concern and competition will turn towards getting into college. Those messages are bound to seep in no matter how much of Pop’s calming Collegewise influence he’ll be able to stand.

Life won’t be like the preschool playground, and I’m all for kids learning how to work hard, how to take responsibility and how to handle occasional stress. High school can be a good teaching ground for these skills. But if teenagers are continuously seeing and hearing messages that one upcoming grade, test, or admissions decision will somehow carry lasting weight to their future, it’s no wonder so many kids end up either anxious, sleep-deprived, or at the other end, disengaged from their educations.

Parents, if you have the same concerns for your own kids, no matter what age they are today, try to remember just how many of those high stakes you and your kids hear about are actually artificial. Yes, entrance to an AP class, a test score, and a GPA all carry some weight. They come with some consequences. But almost all of that influence is short-term. Your teenager will not be behind the curve of life at 30 because of one academic outcome when he was 16.

High school (and life) will not be as carefree as preschool is. But it’s best not to be affected by artificial stakes.

Different voice, same advice

One of the risks of posting this blog every day is that advice can sometimes lose its oomph when you hear it too often from the same source. It’s the reason many parents who bring their student to Collegewise tell us, “I’m his mother—he won’t listen to me [about how to get into college].”

Vanderbilt’s Carolyn Pippen penned “Lessons from a Departing Admissions Officer.” If you’re a regular reader, you might feel like you’ve read much of it here before. And that’s exactly why I’m sharing it. I’ve written before that it’s important to seek advice from the right sources. But sometimes even a good source can start to feel stale. And a fresh source can bring new life to the same old advice.

Seek “vuja de”

“Déjà vu” describes the feeling that you’ve been here before even when experiencing something new. “Vuja de” is the opposite. You’re doing something familiar, something you’ve done many times before, but the experience feels brand new. Coined by the late comedian George Carlin, he described vuja de as “the strange feeling that none of this has ever happened before.”

Twelve years ago, my business partner Arun and I wrote the original copy for the “Careers” page of the Collegewise website. We’d just launched our site and our search for new counselors in earnest, so it was all unfamiliar territory for us. We started from scratch and hammered away, trading drafts back and forth until we had a final product we both loved. It was new. It was fresh. It didn’t sound like any other company’s website. Like so much of what we did together at Collegewise back in those days, it was thrilling to do something new for the first time.

Last week, when Arun and I went back and reviewed the copy that had been our reliable default a decade ago, we both experienced the same feeling—what was once fresh now felt dated. We’re proud of our history, but we’re not the same five-person fledgling company we were in 2005. Today, we have offices across the country. We’ve worked with more than 8,000 students. Collegewise has a book. Our counselors speak at conferences. I write this blog every day. We even have our own filmmaker now. Someone who joins Collegewise today is joining a larger, more compelling, and more successful work family than our 2005 text described. It was time to cast aside the default. We didn’t need to edit. We didn’t need to revise. We needed to start over. From scratch. Something we’d seen a hundred times before suddenly looked different to us. It was vuja de at work.

There’s nothing wrong with letting something that works do its thing. But once it becomes routine, it’s easy to go on automatic pilot, to settle into the familiar of what you’ve done and where you’ve been before. You stop looking for ways to get better. You stop noticing what’s not working as well as it used to. You lose access to one of your most powerful tools—the ability to see something for the first time. When that happens, it’s time for some vuja de.

If you want to make your club, organization, team, or even just yourself better, regularly force yourself to take a fresh look at what you’re doing. Consider whether or not the way you’ve always done it is still working. Look for opportunities to improve, to try something new, or to shake things up. Keep looking hard and eventually it will feel like you’re seeing and experiencing the formerly familiar for the first time. And that’s what leads to the new-and-improved.

Arun and I are back to starting our “Careers” page from scratch again. We’re loving the process of envisioning what’s possible, trading ideas and drafts back and forth, and breaking our own new ground just like we did 12 years ago. As recently as two weeks ago, we didn’t see the need to redo the page. Now it’s hard to imagine how we missed it.

Sometimes a fresh look—a little vuja de—is all it takes.

Bring your heart to it

Since founding Collegewise in 1999, I’ve hired over 60 people who became Collegewisers, the vast majority of whom had—or continue to have—successful runs during their time here. They didn’t all follow one path to get here. Some were admissions officers before Collegewise. Some were high school counselors. Some joined us from careers that weren’t even in education. Some went to highly selective schools. Many more did not. But they all shared one trait in common. It showed up in their cover letters, career history, and in their work here. It’s not easy to describe, but we always recognize it when we see it.

They bring their hearts to work.

People who bring their heart to work see their work as a calling. They want to find meaning and purpose in the work that they do. They don’t just want to complete a to-do list today. They want to create an even more interesting, challenging to-do list tomorrow.

They lean into learning, always looking for ways to be better, more knowledgeable, and more efficient at their jobs.

As ambitious as they are, people who bring their heart to work are also givers. They want to make not just themselves, but also their coworkers and their organization better. They’ll pitch in for a co-worker who needs help. They’ll share what they learn. They’ll look for meaningful opportunities to contribute even if it’s not technically part of their job description.

They tell the truth. They keep their promises. They treat their coworkers with respect even when they disagree with them. They do the right thing even when it’s not the easy thing.

They make a lasting impact while they’re here. They’re missed if they move on. And they leave a legacy behind after every tenure.

People who bring their heart to work are not workaholics. They know that life and family are always more important than work. Heart isn’t about how many total hours you put in. It’s how much you care during those hours that matters.

But most importantly, these Collegewisers brought their hearts to work long before they ever joined us. Whether they were in jobs that they loved or hated, it never occurred to them to hold their heart back until the perfect opportunity, title, or promotion came along. They’re just not built that way.

It’s that habit, that constant willingness to care and do even more, that made them so successful in the past, and that always leads to even better opportunities in the future.

However you plan on spending your time today—in the classroom, on the field, on the job, etc.—bring your heart with you. Care and do more than you have to. Not because it will help you get ahead, but because you just can’t imagine doing it any other way.

The first step to putting your heart into anything is bringing it with you.

The opportunity of a lifetime

As we all take a moment today to honor those men and women who died serving our country, I invite students and parents to consider how many of those soldiers never had the chance to go to college, and how many parents watched their kids go to war, not move into a dorm room.

Treat the chance to attend college as the opportunity of a lifetime, because it is.

Six years later…

Six years ago, I wrote this post about a college admissions advising firm sending families a letter that I and many other counselors believed preyed on the fear that’s become so common in college admissions. Six years later, they’re still sending out the very same letter, which can only mean that it’s effective at driving sales for this business.

Here’s how the letter (still) begins:


Families deserve to hear the truth about college admissions. Sometimes that truth hurts. No, Duke isn’t a safety school. Yes, that money you put in your student’s name could hurt your financial aid eligibility. It’s not likely you’ll raise your SAT score from 900 to 1400. Great counselors do a delicate dance, giving straight answers but still leaving kids feeling encouraged and excited about their next steps in life. It’s an art, and most counselors, especially those in the high schools, are very good at it.

But my advice, much like that company’s letter, has not changed in six years. Families, don’t trust a private college advisor, tutor, or test prep company whose pitch makes you feel scared, guilty, or inadequate, especially before they’ve even met you.

It takes both compassion and guts to look families in the eye and tell them the truth. But it takes neither to prey on college admissions fears for your own professional gain.

If you work for one of those firms, don’t you and your students deserve better?

Big idea payoffs for groups?

Many students, parents, and counselors have likely sat through a meeting dedicated to “brainstorming”—everyone is invited to share ideas with the group, then discussion and debate ensue, all in the hopes that you’ll get that one great new idea for raising funds, recruiting members, solving an existing challenge, etc. Some of these meetings include guidelines like “Refrain from criticizing initially” designed to encourage participation. I’ve even posted a few here.

But as the Harvard Business Review shares, there’s some pretty compelling research to indicate that teams get better ideas, and more of them, when members are invited to brainstorm alone. And it seems like a pretty low-risk experiment for a group to try, with some potentially big idea payoffs.

What happens to valedictorians?

From Time Magazine’s recent article, “Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows”:

“Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College, followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation onward to see what becomes of those who lead the academic pack. Of the 95 percent who went on to graduate college, their average GPA was 3.6, and by 1994, 60 percent had received a graduate degree. There was little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent 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.”

Are those straight-A students wasting their time? Is high school a pointless exercise in the grand scheme of future success? No, and the researcher’s findings do not suggest those conclusions either.

Students who earn top grades in challenging courses are availing themselves of more college options and more generous financial aid packages. They’re preparing for the intellectual rigor college will demand. And I think most importantly, they’re demonstrating the work ethic and discipline that will be crucial for success in just about any field. It’s hard to argue with those benefits.

But no matter what a student’s GPA might be, grades don’t measure everything. They can neither secure nor torpedo your future. Your GPA is a snapshot of your classroom performance in high school, a number that, by itself, has far greater short-term significance than it does long-term.

For families who are interested in considering and even discussing success in high school, how to measure it, and how to begin cultivating the traits that will help a student carry that success into the future, here are three past posts to get you started:

Help kids develop long-term traits

You can’t earn straight A’s in life

No right answer = more learning

Wandering generality vs. meaningful specific

Too many students approach the college admissions process the same way:

They take the classes they’re supposed to take, but they don’t have a favorite subject or teacher.

They join clubs and hold leadership positions and do community service driven not by a sense of joy or commitment, but by the notion that it’s what colleges want.

Rather than find the colleges that fit, they apply only to famous schools and resolve to go to the “best” one they get into.

They’re good kids who’ve worked hard. But because they don’t stand for anything, they don’t stand out. They look exactly the same on paper as countless other applicants who executed, checked the right boxes, and now expect to be rewarded with an admission to a highly selective college. They’re wandering generalities.

Instead of a wandering generality, be a meaningful specific.

The meaningful specifics took all the right classes, but love history, or reading, or math. They have a favorite class or teacher and they can tell you what they’re excited to learn in college.

The meaningful specifics don’t just list their activities. They excitedly talk about how much these involvements meant to them. And they can point to the projects they initiated, the difference they made, and the legacy they’ll leave when they’re done.

The meaningful specifics have big expectations of themselves and their future colleges. They want more than just a famous name alone. They think deeply about what they hope or expect to gain from college, thoughtfully search for the schools that fit, and then make it their mission to extract the maximum value once they’re there.

You don’t necessarily need to have your college, your major, and your future career picked out when you’re sixteen. Plenty of meaningful specifics are focused on what they’re doing today without a roadmap of what they’ll be doing many tomorrows from now.

But you, your time, and your future are valuable. You deserve more than to plod through your days doing what everybody else does, hoping that a college with a famous name will make you successful.

Instead, listen to your mind, your heart, and your gut. Learn things that interest you, spend your time doing what you love, and look for schools that will give you the tools and the environment where you can best take the next step in your life.

Meaningful specifics are what you deserve. And meaningful specifics are how you stand out.

Is college admission fair?

College admission decisions often don’t make sense to outside observers. Why is one student admitted over another? How could the seemingly perfect kid be denied? How can a student be accepted at one school but denied at another statistically less selective?

The entire process can seem arbitrary, and even unfair. This new post from the Georgia Tech Admissions Blog agrees (bold emphasis is theirs):

“‘That’s not fair!’ Well, my friends, neither is college admission. If you applied to a college that has a selective (meaning below 33% admit rate) process, or if you are a counselor, principal, parent, friend of someone who has gone through this lately, you know this to be true. Inevitably, you know someone who was denied or waitlisted that was ‘better’ or ‘more qualified’ or ‘should have gotten in.’ I try not to specifically speak for my colleagues, but I feel confident saying this for anyone that works at a highly selective college that has just denied a ton of the students you are thinking about/calling about/inquiring about: We know. It’s NOT fair. You’re not crazy. In fact, we’d be the first to concur that there are many denied students with higher SAT/ACT scores or more community service or more APs or who wrote a better essay or participated in more clubs and sports than some who were admitted. But here is what is critical for you to understand– ultimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit– is not about fairness. It’s about mission.”

After you read the article, please remember that while the decisions might not always seem to make sense, they’re rarely arbitrary, as this past post explains.