Are you tired of college talk?

The process of getting into college dominates many families’ conversations. Progress in classes, test score check-ups, activities and honors, and the elusive edge to gain admission to the dream college—it’s no wonder that even many of the highest achieving teens seem to disengage from these conversations the longer they go on.

If your family is suffering from admissions discussion overload, here’s something to try—pick one day. Agree on one day of the week where you suspend all discussion of college admissions talk.

Do the one day experiment and you’ll see that nothing bad happens. Grades don’t go down. Test scores don’t drop. Georgetown doesn’t check in and express concern that they haven’t received an email with a question from anyone in your family. Just take one day and you’ll see that you get all the benefits of a college-talk free day with no negative side effects.

Even better, once you see for yourself how well one day works, try the opposite—limit your discussion of college-related topics to one day only. Spend the rest of the week talking about anything but college.

I think that healthy, productive discussion for families is part of a successful and enjoyable ride to college. But it should never be the dominant topic. Focusing that much on each and every element of the process–treating it like a high stakes game where momentarily losing your focus means losing your advantage–just adds pressure, tension, and anxiety without any added benefit or improved results.

Of course, some families could stand to talk a lot more about college, especially in cases where kids aren’t getting the encouragement that can make all the difference. But you’re not one of them if your family is officially tired of college talk.

What is your contribution worth?

I’ve written often here that high school students don’t have to be the valedictorian, MVP, first chair, etc. to stand out, that your impact isn’t limited to your accolades, and that even role players can make vital contributions. But I can imagine some students’ and parents’ skepticism, wondering how riding the basketball bench or scooping popcorn at the movie theater could possibly be valuable enough to impact others and to impress colleges. If you want some proof that bringing a little more energy, enthusiasm, or creativity can make a remarkable impact in an otherwise unremarkable role, look no further than Southwest Airlines.

If you’ve flown Southwest, you may have experienced a flight safety announcement unlike any you’ve heard before. Where every other airline seems to phone it in and read the same mundane announcement you’ve heard before about seat belts and oxygen and life rafts, Southwest encourages their flight attendants to be creative with zingers like:

If you wish to smoke, the smoking section on this airplane is on the wing. If you can light ’em, you can smoke ’em.

Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then on your child. If you’re traveling with more than one child, start with the one who has more potential or who is less likely to put you in the home.

If you should get to use the life vest in a real-life situation, the vest is yours to keep.

Southwest is the only airline I know of that has fliers who answer the question “How was your flight?” by reciting their favorite portion of the in-flight announcements.

But what is all that laughter and fun worth to the bottom line for Southwest Airlines?

In their new book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, authors Chip and Dan Heath spoke with the Southwest Airlines analytics team to find the answer to that question. The team learned that when travelers who flew more than once a year on Southwest heard one of these creative announcements, they would fly an average of an extra half flight over the next year. That might not sound like much, but the team calculated that if they could double the number of flights where the announcement was creative (not all of Southwest’s flight attendants elect to put their own spin on the presentation), the impact would be worth an additional $140 million in revenue. That’s the cost of two planes for Southwest. All from just letting flight attendants bring some personality and vigor to something otherwise ordinary.

Your energy, verve, or other impact may not be worth millions of dollars to the bottom line for the Latin Club, hockey team, or non-profit where you volunteer. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth something—to you, to the organization, and to colleges.

Old news, new audiences

One of my oldest friends from college who has a son just starting his college search asked me for my take on an article from his local paper. Entitled “Test Perfection Isn’t Enough,” it described a staggering level of competition where, to use the article’s words, “perfection doesn’t guarantee a spot at Stanford, Princeton, or even Berkeley.”

For my friend, this was a gloomy admissions scenario, a sign of scary times to come for his family as his high-achieving son decides where he will go to college. But to me the story was akin to one entitled “Cigarettes are Detrimental to Your Health” or “Smoke Detectors Increase Your Family’s Chance of Surviving a Fire.” Old news.

Repeating old news for new audiences is yet another factor that creates unnecessary anxiety for families during the college admissions process. Every spring since I founded Collegewise in 1999, the same headlines run again like clockwork—admission rates at the most selective colleges are down, perfection isn’t enough, the competition is staggering, etc. Those articles never mention that the colleges in question represent just a fraction of the over 2,000 from which to choose and that most schools in our country accept far more applicants than they turn away. What gets left out gives the headlines even more oomph.

If you’re a high school counselor or a parent who’s been through the process with older kids, it’s all old news. Not necessarily inaccurate in its facts, but not a breaking story, either. And what an unnecessarily scary message for a family who’s entering the process for the first time to see seemingly substantiated proof that they have every reason to be anxious. It’s no wonder so many people end up approaching the process like an arduous rite of passage to survive rather than an exciting journey to enjoy.

It’s healthy to stay informed, and I’m not suggesting any family should discount any or all news when it relates to college admissions. But the press wants people to be grabbed by headlines, especially for those pieces that are trying to do more than report the events of the day. And that means that you’ll need to be discerning about whether the news you’re taking in should affect your outlook or your college application plans.

When in doubt, ask yourself these two questions when ingesting any news about admissions:

1. Is the news describing a change?
A change needs to be anchored in a description of before and after. The article my friend shared with me never claimed the statistics represented any sort of shift from how things used to be to how they are today. It merely told readers that the most selective colleges in the country are still hard to get into.

2. Is the news broadly applicable?
When the press reported on the changes to the FAFSA last year, that was a global change to the process that affected every family intending on applying for need-based financial aid for college. But a story about how Harvard denied even more kids than they did the year before, or how the already highly competitive Ivy League schools were still very competitive? That’s not broad (or new) news.

These questions alone won’t insulate you from clickbait-induced anxiety. But they’re a good start to identifying old news pitched to new audiences.

Multiple deposits put your admission at risk

Most colleges require admitted students to declare their intention to enroll by May 1, and to do so by sending a non-refundable deposit. If you’re in the enviable position of considering offers of admission from multiple desirable colleges and you have trouble picking just one, you might be tempted to buy time and place deposits at more than one school (a practice colleges and counselors call “double-depositing”). But please don’t do it, for all the reasons I outlined in this past post.

If those reasons aren’t enough, here’s another. If you applied using the Common Application, the signature page you submitted included this language:

I affirm that I will send an enrollment deposit (or equivalent) to only one institution; sending multiple deposits (or equivalent) may result in the withdrawal of my admission offers from all institutions.

Sending multiple deposits is bad form, it sets a bad precedent, and it just might result in your receiving new—bad—admissions news.

Admissions negativity getting you down?

In many social circles, pressure surrounding college admissions causes a pervasive negativity. Lamenting weaknesses rather than leveraging strengths, bemoaning the selectivity of one school instead of celebrating the accessibility of so many others, treating the journey like an escalating arms race instead of an exciting time in a student’s life—it’s no wonder so many families struggle to find the joy in what should be a joyful time.

But there are steps you can take to combat that negativity, many of which have nothing to do with college planning or improving your admissions chances. Author and wellness consultant Michelle Gielan shares some strategies here. They were intended to help professionals overcome negativity at work. But all of these recommendations are just as effective for the college-bound.

Feelings fade, but the internet doesn’t

Yesterday, a student who had been denied from a highly selective college responded by tweeting at the school’s dean of admissions, hurling rage and insults at him that depending on your interpretation were at best offensive and at worst racist (the icing on the Twitter cake was that the post was also rife with spelling errors).

It didn’t take long for a screenshot of that tweet to make the social media rounds in the counseling and admissions community. Here’s what will very likely happen next.

1. There’s a good chance his post could make its way to the admissions offices of colleges that admitted him.

2. Because screenshots last forever (even after a tweet is deleted), and because this student chose a Twitter handle that uses his full name, he won’t be able to deny that he wrote that post.

3. If #1 happens, there’s an equally good chance those schools will rescind his admission.

Yes, he’s a teenager, and teens make mistakes. If he’d tweeted “You guys missed out” or even “You suck,” most admissions professionals would chalk it up to youthful emotion and laugh it off. But a post that is offensive and angry forces colleges to ask serious questions.

What will he do if he disagrees with a grade a professor gives him?

How will he handle himself if he loses an election for a dorm leadership post, or doesn’t get invited to join his first choice fraternity, or isn’t selected for an opportunity on campus that he was excited about?

Will other students feel safe learning and living in close quarters with this student?

Is it worth the college’s risk to put a student prone to this kind of anger into a campus community, especially with likely so many other qualified applicants to choose from?

I don’t predict he’s going to like the answers.

I will admit that part of me feels bad for this kid. Teens today have the capability of publishing their thoughts publicly to a potentially huge audience, an ability that is often unforgiving of teenage indiscretions.

But I’d also never let him on my campus if I were putting a class together and I saw that tweet. Tens of thousands of other kids were just as disappointed if not more so with news they’ve received. And they made a different choice.

High school students (and their parents), I know college admissions decisions can feel bitterly personal. But whatever disappointment, frustration, or outright anger that you’re feeling, please do not channel it publicly in a way that you cannot possibly take back. It’s not worth it. It’s not right. And you’ll probably regret it.

Feelings fade, but the internet lives on.

Planning your courses? Join us for a free webinar!

Just about every college in the country will tell applicants that high school course selection is one of the most important factors in determining admissibility to college. But how many AP or honors classes should you take? Is it important to take four years of science, language, or math? And what if you’re debating between AP Calc or Statistics? These are exactly the kinds of decisions that many applicants face. If you’ve got the same questions or others like them, I hope you’ll join us at this upcoming free webinar.

Science and English and Math, Oh My! Choosing High School Classes
Tuesday, March 27
6 p.m. – 7 p.m. PST
Cost: Free

I’d also like to offer an important disclaimer for this topic. This webinar will give you a lot of great information and advice about course selection and its role in the college admissions process, but it’s not a replacement for a discussion with your high school counselor. Good course scheduling weighs factors like what subjects you enjoy the most, which you find more challenging, where you want to attend college, and a host of other factors that are unique to you. This is a little bit like financial planning, diet and exercise, or auto maintenance. Broader best practices are accepted and worth following. But the specifics of every individual are different.

So, I invite you to learn from our webinar and then channel that knowledge into a personal course planning discussion with your counselor. And in the unlikely event that any of the advice conflicts, listen to your counselor.

More information, and the registration information, is here. And if you can’t make it live and would like to view a video of the event, please register anyway. We’ll make a video of the webinar available to registrants for up to two weeks after the event. I hope you’ll join us.

What’s left in, and what’s left out

The Gallup Organization broke new ground when they released First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. Rather than set out to prove a management hypothesis, their researches spent a decade interviewing employees and managers to seek data-driven proof of what the world’s greatest managers had in common. And the most significant insight shared by tens of thousands of great managers boiled down to this:

“People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.”

Great managers know that there is a limit to how much they can mold or otherwise change someone. So instead, they try to capitalize on who the person already is. That’s why great managers don’t spend time trying to help people fix their weaknesses. They’d rather make more of the person’s existing strengths.

The book goes on to explain the nuances in applying that wisdom—for example, it does not suggest that managers should ignore people’s weaknesses or that all training is a waste of time. But the overarching wisdom applies nicely to high school kids going through the college admissions process, too.

People change a lot as they get older. I’ve never met an adult who claimed to be relatively unchanged since high school.

But is it likely that a student who has consistently struggled with math will morph into one who loves math and sets the curve?

Is it likely that a student who seems unmotivated by school will turn around and eagerly await the morning bell every day?

Is it likely that a shy student will become more outgoing—and enjoy their transformed state—just by sheer force of will or outside demand alone?

Will the student who prefers singing to sports ever thrive on the field or court?

Will the reserved but effective role-player enthusiastically seek out the prominent leadership positions and ultimately be both happy and successful in that role?

Like the best managers, I don’t suggest that parents or the students themselves resign themselves to the thinking that teens simply are who they are, with no room to grow or adapt. Inspiration and growth can come from many sources. But they can also arrive at different times. If those forces of change don’t present themselves in high school, they’ll arrive eventually, and likely at a time when the student is more open to them.

So students, keep working hard. Don’t give up on things that matter to you or to colleges. But don’t bemoan who you aren’t. Instead, channel your strengths and interests and anything else that lights you up into productive exploits. Don’t waste too much time trying to be like everyone else. Instead, spend time being the best version of who you already are.

And parents, remember that your teens are still growing, discovering, and finding who they are and what they will be. Their current trajectory may not fit the vision you had in mind. But attempts to reengineer their makeup and change who they are will only frustrate you and damage your relationship. Instead of fixing what you think is left out, appreciate, nurture, and encourage what’s already there.

It’s easier to make something of what’s already in than it is to replace something that’s left out.

Is the negative person an opportunity?

Students, parents, counselors, teachers—most of us have had experience leading or working alongside someone who doesn’t exactly exude sunny positivity. It’s the complainer. It’s the one who’s always quick to point out why an idea won’t work. It’s the person who’s the first to place blame and the last to offer praise. As a leader, manager, or coworker, can you change that person? Can you get them to offer productive solutions instead of just counter-productive naysaying?

Two of the most prolific current thinkers and writers on the topic of management are Marcus Buckingham and Adam Grant. Coincidentally, both recently published some suggested solutions around this topic: Buckingham’s short video “How to Motivate a Negative Employee” and the Fast Company piece “Adam Grant Can Help You Coax Generosity Out Of Your Grumpiest Coworker.”

I can’t tell you how many college essays admissions officers read from students who claim to have either learned leadership lessons or come to appreciate the value of teamwork (sometimes they claim that appreciation of teamwork is the leadership lesson learned). What makes those essays cliché is the lack of detail. They insert the deep meaning into the story by asserting that they’ve learned or demonstrated an admirable trait, but without specific examples, the essays read just like all the others on the same topic.

Imagine the story you could tell if you’d motivated or otherwise improved the contributions of the negative person on your team. And even more importantly, imagine the broad impact you’d make if you were the person who could make that change.

That negative person just might be presenting an opportunity for the right leader, manager, coworker, or teammate.