One chapter

I flew to England last week to attend my brother-in-law’s graduation from Oxford, where he and 300 other overachievers from around the world earned their MBAs. Not surprisingly, the people I met were an impressive collection of varied successes. I met a 23-year-old Rhodes Scholar who was already earning his second master’s at Oxford. I met a woman who’d spent the last year in Rwanda working to stop some of the worst forms of child labor. I met a business owner whose company installs solar farms all over Europe, several students who left behind lucrative careers in investment banking and venture capital, and budding entrepreneurs who’d secured multiple post-graduation pitch meetings with potential investors.

I certainly didn’t meet anywhere near all 300 of the graduates. But of the dozen or so that I did get to chat with, only one attended a college that would likely be described by most of my readers as prestigious—UCLA. The rest went to schools that included Occidental, Northeastern, Emory, Arizona State, and multiple international colleges I’d never heard of.

And while each of them when asked (as I have a tendency to do) spoke fondly of their college years, not one of them credited their college with their success. For each, college was an important, memorable four-year period on a continuous path of work, learning, growth, successes, and yes, failures. College is an important chapter of their story, not the entire story.

It’s easy for high school students and their parents to get so immersed in the quest to get into college that they lose perspective on the relative importance of what will eventually be a student’s adult life. Given the time, money, and energy you’ll have to spend to get in and to succeed once you’re in college, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t treat the process with respect. But nobody’s future was ever made or broken with one piece of good or bad admissions news from your dream school. According to the class profile, the average student in this Oxford graduating class had been out of college for only five years. Yet most spoke of their undergraduate years like ancient, albeit wonderful, history.

College will be an important chapter in your life. But no matter where you go, the rest of your story can be a page-turner if you want it to be. One chapter doesn’t make or break the entire book.

Standing out starts at home

The consistent references to “your child” in Challenge Success’s “Top Ten Back-to-School Tips to Help Your Child Thrive” might cause some high school parents to pass by the advice. But I don’t see a single one that doesn’t apply when you swap out “child” for “teen.”

Parents, remember that you, more than your teen’s school or friends, set the tone for how your family approaches education and the college admissions process. Many other families, particularly those in areas with a pervasive kids-must-get-into-prestigious-colleges mentality, will fly in the face of these tips. They will not resist the urge to fix problems for their kids. They will not prioritize work done with integrity over work that receives an “A.” They will not leave technology behind at dinner time, encourage regular downtime, or encourage passions independently of their (often incorrectly) reported college admissions value.

But that doesn’t mean you must do the same thing in your house. Kids stand out by being the best versions of themselves, not by following what everyone else is doing. And standing out starts at home.

Five sentiments colleges find compelling

I’m excited to go to college.

There is so much I don’t know, and so much I want to know.

I’ve got a lot of growing and experiencing to do.

I’m willing to give as much as I get while I’m in college.

I really want to attend your school, but if you don’t accept me, I’m sure I’ll have a great experience someplace else.

Like all sentiments, they resonate most when the actions match the words.

On networking and building connections

Here’s author and Wharton School professor Adam Grant’s latest piece, “Good News for Young Strivers: Networking Is Overrated.” And he connects the networking behavior of many young professionals to those of many of his college students:

“My students often believe that if they simply meet more important people, their work will improve. But it’s remarkably hard to engage with those people unless you’ve already put something valuable out into the world. That’s what piques the curiosity of advisers and sponsors. Achievements show you have something to give, not just something to take. Sure, you can fire off cold emails to people you respect — they’re just a click away — but you’ll be lucky if 2 percent even reply. The best way to attract a mentor is to create something worthy of the mentor’s attention. Do something interesting, and instead of having to push your way in, you’ll get pulled in. The network comes to you.”

I think that message has equal application for high school students who believe that attending a prestigious college will guarantee connections that will help you be successful. The best connections are those that come to you because you’re what I’ve called a mentor magnet, not those you built just so you could benefit from the personal link.

Here are two past posts, one of mine, and one with wise words from author and Harvard grad Jay Mathews on the value (or lack thereof) of alumni connections in determining your post-college success.

Back to school: greatest hits edition

Here’s a collection of past posts and resources to consider as students head back to school.

For high school students:

How to achieve your goals in school this year.

How to be more impressive by doing less.

Some advice to help you earn better grades.

A past post with back-to-school resolution suggestions.

My favorite study skills book is Cal Newport’s How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Don’t let the “college students” reference in the title throw you off, as most of it applies to high school students, too. Includes great advice about how to take notes, how to study, how to take a test, etc.

My book, If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted, explains every step of the college admissions process, from classes and testing to applications, essays, and interviews.

For parents:

The Challenge Success folks share their Top Ten Back-to-School Tips to Help your Child Thrive in School This Year.

For college students:

A past post with resources and advice to help you start college strong and happy.


Monday morning Q&A

As a fun almost-back-to-school diversion, I’d like to try something new here. For the next month or so, I’ll be answering a question every week from a blog reader. The question form is here if you’d like to submit one for consideration. Anything goes, but questions that are too specific to one particular student aren’t likely to get selected unless there’s a broader application for other readers.

Great things take time to make

Between the day I left for college and the day I arrived home for my December holiday break, I had almost no communication with anyone I’d gone to high school with. Unless we were willing to place an expensive long-distance phone call or write a good old-fashioned letter, we all had to wait until December to reconvene in our hometown and swap college stories. Until that time, each of our experiences was our own. The only frame of comparison was our fellow students on our respective campuses, not our friends spread out at colleges across the country.

Times are different for today’s college freshmen. With email, text, and social media, everyone is experiencing college together—virtually. It’s a great way to see what your old friends are up to, and even to stay in closer touch with those people you’d rather have more meaningful exchanges with than just the occasional comment on a posted photo. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to make you feel terrible about your own college experience.

When you scroll through social media feeds of nothing but positive reports and renderings from college campuses, yet you’ve got a roommate you don’t connect with, or classes that haven’t inspired you yet, or a campus social scene where you’ve yet to find your place, you might feel like you’re doing college wrong while everyone else is doing it right. It’s even worse if you start second-guessing your choice of where to spend these next four years.

New college freshmen, please remember two things. First, much of what you see and read about your friends’ experiences at college is just advertising. Many are posting the carefully selected share-worthy moments that don’t necessarily reflect the entirety of their experience. Second, while some people experience college bliss from the moment they move into their dorm, many more do not.

Looking back, was your first week or month or even semester of high school representative of the entire four-year experience? Probably not. And your earliest college experiences won’t be, either. A great college experience is the sum of four years that will include lots of ups and downs, successes and failures, good fortune and tough breaks. Believe it or not, all of those things contribute to what makes college such a learning, growing, and even flat-out-fun period of your life. In fact, that’s not just college, that’s life. And you deserve to reap all the great rewards and memories of it without the impression that you’re the only one for whom the ride is occasionally bumpy.

So many of today’s college freshmen have spent the last four years or more working towards and dreaming about what’s been promised to be the best, most fulfilling, most transformative experience of their lives. For most of you, it will be just that when you look back on it. But please don’t despair if it doesn’t seem to be happening for you on week one, semester one, or in some cases even year one. Relieve yourself of the pressure of expecting that every day should be your best day. Instead, focus on things you can control—your effort, your initiative, your willingness to treat every day of college as an opportunity to go out and make something of it as opposed to sitting back and waiting for that something to come to you.

Spend enough days doing those things and it will start to add up. Over time, you’ll have plenty to love—and share—about college.

College will be great. But great things take time to make.

Innovating and honoring

I still remember one of the questions I was asked during my interview for a position as a summer orientation program coordinator during my senior year of college.

What do you think will be the most challenging part of being an orientation coordinator?

I was ready for this one. It was something I’d thought about a lot and was hoping I’d get the chance to talk about.

The short version of my answer: Deciding which parts of the program we should change to look for newer, better ways of doing things, and which parts we should keep the same.

That program had been thriving for nearly 20 years, with a rich history and a long line of traditions that meant something to people. Plenty of smart, successful coordinators had come before. Clearly, they’d done a lot right. And it felt pretty arrogant to suggest that any part of the program needed a complete overhaul.

But I also knew promising only to repeat everything, unchanged and unimproved, was no way to get any job worth having. The hiring committee didn’t just want the program to duplicate itself year after year. They wanted progress– new and better ways to serve the program’s mission of helping incoming students feel welcome and prepared for college.

I genuinely believed that striking that balance of honoring the old and embracing the new would be challenging, but that the right people for the job would embrace that opportunity. I can’t say for sure whether or not that was the answer they were looking for, but I did get the job. And my fellow coordinators and I spent the next nine months deciding where to innovate with what would be new and honoring what was already old.

Students, teachers, and counselors, as you head back to school and assume your positions in offices, classrooms, teams, clubs, organizations, and other constituencies, where will you innovate to find the new, and what will you keep unchanged by honoring the old?

There’s no easy, right answer to this. But here’s a good place to start. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is not honoring the old and is often an insufficient reason to stay the same. Unless it’s followed by something compelling like…

…and everyone has been thrilled with the results
….and we’ve yet to find something that promises to work that well
…and it’s at the core of who we are and what we stand for
…and the stakes are just too high to experiment with something unproven

…then it might be time to try some innovating.

Seniors, make your August choice

I think the smartest, most strategic decision a senior can make during the month of August is to choose between two paths for the next four weeks before school starts:

1. Go all in and work like your hair is on fire.
2. Check out, relax, and recharge as much as possible.

Depending on who you are and how you’ve spent your summer, either one can be a really smart decision.

College applications are staring you in the face. And when school starts, you’ll be balancing those with your classes, activities, standardized testing, and other commitments. It’s all doable and seniors get through it every year. But it won’t be easy. So what’s the best August choice for you?

If you’ve had fun this summer, if you’ve enjoyed some days to sleep in, if you’ve spent time with your friends and had your fun and realistically aren’t suffering from any lingering burnout, I’d recommend the go-all-in option. Make it your personal mission to do as much college application-related work before school starts. You may feel like you’re getting cheated out of your final month of summer. But the work will have to get done either way. And I simply cannot imagine a scenario as you progress through the fall when you’ll say, “I really wish I hadn’t gotten such a head start on all this during the summer.”

But maybe your summer hasn’t been all that relaxing. Maybe you’ve had a part- or full-time job. Maybe you’ve been doing intensive test prep. Maybe you’ve been doing reading for AP classes, or volunteering 30 hours a week, or fulfilling other obligations and responsibilities without much opportunity to bask in the traditional lazy days of summer. If so, pick option 2, the one that lets you make the choice to fill your gas tank as much as possible for the remainder of the summer.

The worst path is to either fail to make a choice at all, or to pick one and not commit to it. So think carefully about this. Be honest with yourself about how you’ve spent your summer, and which road will realistically put you on the best path to success. Then make your choice.

Bonus tip: Tell your parents which choice you’ve made, why you’ve made it, and what commitments you’re willing to make to ensure your choice delivers the maximum benefit. It may not be the choice they’d recommend. But if you’re thoughtful, deliberate, and communicative, you’ll at the very least demonstrate that you’re thinking ahead and taking your college applications seriously.

Seniors, there’s no wrong answer, but you’ve got to pick one. Time to make your August choice.

Bring a little magic

I worked at a test prep company in my first job out of college. And one of the most memorable people I met at that job was Vic, the UPS guy.

We received 5-10 shipments of materials every week, so Vic visited our office a lot. Every time he did, he would burst in with a smile and greet every single one of us by name. And he’d banter joyfully with all of us.

Somebody better help you answer all those calls, Tracy!

Paul, look at that shirt! Where can I get me a shirt like that?

Adam, why are you getting so many packages? What are you, Santa Claus in here?

I was crossing the street, heading back from the coffee shop one afternoon, when Vic turned the corner in his brown UPS truck. He jokingly gunned the gas and headed right for me before he safely passed by and yelled out the window, “Almost gotcha, Kevin!”

When we put a bulletin board on our office wall with photos of all 120 staff members and teachers who worked for us, it took just one day for Vic to say, “Hey, I gotta get my picture up there!” That request was immediately and enthusiastically fulfilled. Vic felt like part of our work family. He belonged on the board.

But the most incredible thing about Vic is that he seemed to do this with every office he delivered to. There were dozens of buildings with hundreds of offices to visit within a four-block radius. And whenever I saw Vic darting to and from his truck, he was joyfully connecting with everyone he came across along the way, always using their names, just like he did with our office staff.

I still remember the day that Vic shared the news he was retiring at the end of the month. After delivering to that same professional neighborhood for 30 years, he’d decided it was time for him and his wife to load up the Winnebago and hit the open road together for six months. He was excited, but everyone in our office was crestfallen.

We loved Vic. All those long days when the phones and the work and the stress just wouldn’t stop, Vic always seemed to lighten the mood and lift us up. We knew how much we were going to miss him. And I already felt bad for the poor replacement who had to step into Vic’s shoes at the end of the month.

There was nothing special, unique, or indispensable about Vic’s role. UPS could have filled that job with a thousand other drivers who would have performed the responsibilities of the job as well as or better than he did.

But Vic brought magic to that regular role. Every day, he put on a show. He leaned in. He showed up with energy and enthusiasm. He found a way to deliver his unique gifts along with his UPS packages. I can’t recall the name of a single other delivery person who’s come to my door. But I’ll never forget Vic. And there are dozens and dozens of people who worked in the 92612 zip code in the mid 90’s who feel exactly the same way.

Vic didn’t have more responsibility or authority than any other UPS employee. But while there were a thousand employees who could deliver those packages, there was only one Vic. To us, he was irreplaceable.

What’s your personal version of Vic? How could you bring so much effort, emotion, caring, trust, energy, art, etc. that you’d make that kind of impact on the people you interact with every day?

You may not do the same things that Vic did. But whatever role you’re playing, you’ll be a lot more effective, memorable, and indispensable if you bring a little magic to it.