The right answer, or unknown answers?

New research led by Prachi Shah at the University of Michigan shows that curiosity—which Shah defines as “the joy of discovery, and the motivation to seek answers to the unknown”–is one of the best predictors of academic success in young children. It’s also one of the best predictors of college admissions success for applicants.

Colleges are always on the hunt for students who will add to the intellectual vitality of the campus community. And that vitality isn’t encapsulated by a high school transcript. Do you have a favorite subject and teacher? Do you make an effort to learn about things—academic or otherwise—that interest you, not because you’re trying to boost your college applications, but because you genuinely want to know more? Are you excited to shop the academic supermarket waiting for you in college?

The joy you find in seeking and discovering answers to the unknown is just as valuable, if not more so, as the reward you find in seeking and discovering the right answer to a question on a test.

When readers graduate

For most families, the college admissions process–whether it was anxious, joyful, or somewhere in between–has a natural end date. And once again, that end date arrived this week on the same date it does every year–May 1, when seniors decide where they’re going to college. This is also the week that the number of readers subscribed to my blog drops, which is exactly what should happen. If you’re a soon-to-be college freshman or the parent of one, you’ve made it. You’ve graduated from this process. And the best parts are yet to come.

For the last three years, I’ve posted the same goodbye to graduates after the May 1 deadline, and it’s always one of my most read and shared posts. Here it is again below. For those of you who’ve let me join you for some or all of this journey, I hope you’ll take the time to read it so I can say goodbye, good luck, and thank you.

Goodbye to graduates
Portions reposted from May 2015


To students:

First, congratulations. Whether or not you’re attending your first-choice school, you should celebrate today. You’re going to college. This is a big deal, one that many of you worked incredibly hard for. Take a second to enjoy it before you rush to think about what’s next. The stress, the applications, the waiting and wondering—it’s all over. Put the college sweatshirt on. This is the good stuff now.

Second, remember that you won’t get to do a first draft of college. This is it. You get four years. So really lean into them. Learn as much as you can. Grow as much as you can. Have as much fun as you can. Don’t be that person who looks back on college and wishes you’d done more to enjoy and benefit from it. Your college can offer all the opportunities and benefits you’d hoped for, but you’ll need to take advantage of them.

Take the time to thank your parents. If they’ve been driving you crazy and you can’t wait to get out of the house, thank them anyway. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is. I didn’t get that until I became a parent myself, and you probably won’t, either. For now, just remember that while you may be a maturing adult now who’s ready to be out on your own, for most of your life you literally and figuratively could not have survived without your parents. Thank them now and you’ll be really proud of your maturity when you look back on this act years later. Really, trust me on this.

To parents:

Parents, congratulations to you, too. You’re officially sending your kid to college. One of the worst symptoms of college stress is that too few parents feel compelled to celebrate that milestone the way your parents did (or would have). But this is as big a deal today as it was in my day, your day, and every day before that. Do a parental high-five and soak this in.

Also, if your kids aren’t being all that nice and appreciative now, remember how little you knew at 18. They haven’t been on the planet that long. College and life will go a long way to mending this.

Remember that you get to demand a certain level of collegiate performance from your student, especially if you’re paying the bill. But consider demanding it in ways that aren’t measured just in GPAs and impressive accomplishments. You might consider bookmarking these past posts and emailing them to your kids after their first week of college.

How do you make the most of college?
How to build a remarkable college career
Turn college into career prep

And for everyone, I have a favor to ask.

I started writing this blog every day in 2009 because I wanted families to enjoy the process that you’ve just finished. If you’ve read and benefitted from what I share here, please pass it along to the next crop of college-goers. Tell a younger friend about it. Share it with a parent who’s about to go through this process with their own son or daughter. Or just forward a particular post that really helped you. Those of us who are trying to change college admissions have to stick together, so when you move on, I need to add new members to the band.

And finally, thank you for reading. It’s a privilege for me to be able to do this, and I hope it helped you enjoy your ride to college a little more.

Good luck, and have a great time in college.

Are you managing up?

“Managing up” is one of those buzz-phrases that’s both widely used and widely misunderstood. Traditional managing involves a person in authority asking a subordinate for updates, explanations, or other information. It’s someone reacting to a lack of necessary information, to something going wrong, or to another factor that has presented itself and is now a concern. But managing up is when the subordinate goes first. Before you’re asked, before it becomes an issue of concern for the person in power, you volunteer not just the information, but also the explanation or other information you would have inevitably been asked for at some point. Instead of authority managing down the chain of command, subordinates manage up toward those in power.

Here are some examples:

  • Students, tell your parents that you struggled on the exam you took today and that you’ve already asked your teacher if you can check in together about your work in the course.
  • Private counselors, reach out to the family you haven’t interacted with recently before they have to ask what their next step is.
  • Parents, tell your boss that the project is likely to be delayed, explain the reasons why, and reveal the steps you’re taking to make sure you’ll still deliver the finished product on spec and under budget.
  • Counselors, tell your principal that you’ve identified some weaknesses in your team’s admissions advising and that you’re creating training programs to address them.

It’s tempting to avoid preemptively answering questions you don’t want to answer. It’s tempting to keep quiet and try to keep those in power from noticing. It’s tempting to suppress an unsavory topic and hope that it will never come to light.

But managing up takes away the element of surprise for both parties. It establishes that you’re retaining responsibility. It reinforces that your concern goes beyond just your own interests. And it encourages confidence in those managing down that you can be counted on to manage up.

Set boundaries like a hostage negotiator

Students, parents, and counselors all occasionally struggle with setting boundaries. Taking on too much, staying reachable all the time, refusing to decline invitations and opportunities—it’s no wonder so many people of all ages are overworked and over-stressed these days. To take some productive steps toward relief, consider following the advice of someone for whom setting boundaries can actually be a matter of life and death.

Chris Voss spent 24 years as an FBI hostage negotiator, including a 7-year stint as their lead negotiator for every American who had been kidnapped overseas. While interviewed for Adam Grant’s latest podcast episode, “When work takes over your life,” Voss shared three tips that can help anyone set boundaries, whether or not the stakes are hostage-level high.

Voss said that hostage negotiators rely on three skills.

1. Ask a strategic question.

When fielding a request that’s just not realistic or reasonable, try asking—in an inquiring, not challenging way—“How am I supposed to do that?” Voss calls this technique “forced empathy” because it forces the other side to take a realistic look at your situation fairly, which is a form of boundary setting.

Example: You’re a student who routinely goes to school from 8-3, to band practice from 3-5, to SAT tutoring from 6-8, and then does homework until midnight. Your parents suggest you add another activity to your resume to appear more well-rounded to colleges. Instead of arguing, just ask, “OK, how am I supposed to do that?” as if you’re genuinely interested in finding a reasonable way to make it work. See if they can actually be a part of a solution, or if they’ll see that there really are only so many hours in a day.

2. Practice labeling.

Research has shown that the best hostage negotiators use a tool called “labeling”—restating what you think the other person has said, which forces the other party to own or reject it. Labeling usually begins, “It feels like…,” “It sounds like…,” “It looks like…,” etc.

“It sounds like you believe I have enough influence to change the admission decision with a phone call?”

“It feels like my grades and accomplishments aren’t enough to make you believe that I’m taking this seriously?”

“It seems like you’re not that interested in our opinions about your college choices, but you also want us to do the work to find the schools?”

3. Get a Yes by getting a No.

People are more persuadable once they’ve had a chance to say no to something. So start by asking a question deliberately intended to get a “no.”

“Do you disagree that it’s unhealthy for me to get 4-5 hours a sleep during the week?”

“Is it a really bad idea for you to take time to learn more about the colleges you want to apply to?”

“Do you feel strongly that I should take an action I believe will hurt, not help, your son’s chances of admission to this school?”

It may not be easy. But whoever you need to set boundaries with, chances are they’re more reasonable than the kidnappers Voss routinely dealt with.

Act on your future counseling need

Students, have you met your high school counselor? Have you engaged with them at all about your academic or college planning? Have you established yourself as someone who’s availing yourself of the resources available to you at your school? Or are you waiting for your counselor to reach out to you? Or worse, have you written off your counselor as someone who you think just doesn’t know enough to help you?

If you’re in the camp of students who haven’t made reasonable efforts to engage with their counselor, imagine a scenario where you one day need their help.

You just got word that a college hasn’t received your letters of rec and you need your counselor to intervene on your behalf.

A college you’ve applied to calls your counselor to verify some information that was unclear in your application.

You need your counselor to explain to a college why you didn’t enroll in physics, why you missed three weeks of school, or why you were disciplined for an infraction that’s now part of your school record.

If you found yourself in a scenario where you really needed your counselor’s help, would you wish you’d made more of an effort to be a familiar student who your counselor knows well and could vouch for with anyone who asked?

Start being the student you would want to be if one of those scenarios were presented to you. The time to consider that future need is now.

Nervous? Try anxious reappraisal

Do you get nervous before tests, big games, or other high-stakes situations? Your instinct might be to tell yourself to calm down. But Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, recommends you do the opposite: Tell yourself how excited you are about what’s currently stressing you out. It’s called “anxious reappraisal,” and it’s more than just empty self-talk—there’s science to back it up. Author Dan Pink explains the technique in this short (2:18) video.

For more on this topic, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal makes a similar recommendation in her TED Talk, “How to make stress your friend.”

Another strategy: just be sensible

Washington Post writer Jay Mathews spent his career writing about education. But he’s always shown a particular fondness for injecting sanity into the college admissions process, not only with his regular doses of wisdom and calm via his pieces in The Post, but also in his book Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You. A father himself who went through the process with his own two children, the mostly-retired Mathews still shows up occasionally to remind readers that you can avoid the anxiety and lunacy that seems to accompany so much of college admissions today by just taking a deep breath and behaving sensibly.

His recent piece on college visits, “Treat a college visit like you’re vacationing, not like you’re cramming for finals,” is a perfect example. Sure, some kids will willingly turn their college visits into note-taking, class-visiting, deep-researching ordeals that resemble investigative reporting more than they do a visit to a college they might want to go to someday. But most will not. And Jay, once again, reminds the rest of us who want to look back on this journey to college fondly that we can find the right college path by just being sensible.

Your best response the first time

I recently started using an outside software service at Collegewise to help us collect signatures by email for our employee documents. Enabling a particular option within the account requires that you contact them, and this week, I’d been bounced around to four different people, each less helpful than the previous one, when an account rep reached out over email to introduce himself. Great! I shared my problem and asked if he could help me fix it. He told me it sounded like a support problem and recommended I contact them (for the third time).

I replied that I’d already been down that road, and expressed that I was starting to question if the service was actually worth the money. That’s when this reply came back:

I would be happy to hop on a quick call to make sure I fully understand what you are trying to accomplish, and then point you in the right direction to make sure this doesn’t keep happening to you. Do you have some time available today?

Sure, that’s better. But why didn’t he start with that response?

Why did he wait until the potential of losing the account was on the table? I’d told him about my situation. He had all the information he needed. He could have swooped in, made a sincere offer to help, and made me feel better about the investment. But if I have to question whether or not I want to keep being a customer in order for him to be helpful, he hasn’t made the situation better. He’s prolonged the frustration. And worst of all, he’s shown me that the squeaky, complaining wheel will always get the grease of attention.

If you serve customers or constituents, you won’t always have the answer or the solution to their problem. But you can apologize for what’s gone wrong. You can show them that you genuinely want to do what you can to fix it. You can make the effort to leave them a little (or a lot) better off than they were when they contacted you. And you can send them away feeling good about the interaction.

But you have to make the choice to do those things.

Don’t withhold your best reply until it’s the only tool left in your arsenal. Instead, give them your best response the first time.

What’s your big fear?

If you’re experiencing an unusually high degree of stress around something that doesn’t seem to deserve quite this much anxiety, the first step towards relief might be asking yourself, “What’s my big fear?”

Not the rational concern. Not the worries as you’d express them to a friend. But the big (and potentially irrational) fear that you don’t say out loud or maybe even acknowledge.

It’s the difference between:

I’m not sure NYU is the right school for me because I haven’t fully decided if business is the right major for me.


My big fear is that I’ll get to NYU and end up homesick, lonely, and depressed. All of this will happen in a new city that seemed exciting but it turns out just scares the hell out of me now that I’m there. And I’ll have to transfer, which will make me feel like a college loser because everyone else from high school will be raving about how college is the best thing ever and documenting on social media how great their lives are.

Once you actually acknowledge the big fear, you’ve isolated the emotion that’s driving it. Then you’ll be in a better position to focus on the real issue, whether it’s emotional, rational, or a little bit of both.