Delayed gratitude

Here’s an easy formula for showing gratitude in a way that’s certain to make an impact.

First, express your thanks (here’s some advice on how to do it well).

Then set a reminder (use a calendar or an app) in the future based on when you think you’ll have something to show for the help you received. Extra help in a class might mean a reminder five days from now, right after the big exam. A letter of recommendation for college might mean a reminder five months from now when you know where you’ve been accepted. Advice on your college savings strategy might mean a reminder one or two years from now when you know how much you’ve saved and how much it’s grown.

You can see the punchline coming.

When the reminder does its job, reach back out to the person who helped you, thank them again, and tell them specifically how the advice has benefited you.

A second, delayed expression of gratitude extends your goodwill. It makes it more likely that the person will help you again in the future. And it’s just a nice thing to do.

The formula for more great days

Want to start regularly coming up with positive answers to that daily question, “How was your day?” Try this.

1. Pick one thing to do more of.
2. Pick one thing to do less of.
3. Pick one thing to stop doing entirely.

Habits, thoughts, actions—anything at all can make the list provided both doable and honest. You—not anyone else, or even worse, colleges—should decide the best answers for yourself.

Pick your three things, then stick to them.

And students, don’t assume that you don’t have any freedom to make those choices. You have far more agency in this process than you might think. It’s your journey to college, and your life, after all.

It’s a simple formula. But it works.

Contribution > résumé

My first job out of college was at a test prep company, and while I was employed there, our office burned down overnight. It happened right in the middle of the fall busy season, with hundreds of students enrolled in courses to prepare for the SATs, ACTs, and the various exams for graduate school. All our materials, computers, and most troublingly our classrooms—everything had been reduced to ashes.

Our owner learned of this when one of our part-time teachers called him at home on Sunday morning with good news and bad news. Bad: he’d been watching the news and learned that our office was toast. Good: his first call was to his friend who worked as an event manager at a local hotel, and he’d secured us multiple conference room spaces at a reduced rate to use as classrooms for the next 30 days.

In one phone call, his contribution went so far beyond teaching that he earned years of gratitude and glowing recommendations from our mutual boss.

The world today will measure, reward, and remember you for your contributions far more than for your résumé (or your college application, or your test scores).

If you start and end every day with, “What contributions did I make?” it will be impossible to encapsulate your value in a few pages. And that’s exactly how you stand out.


Intellectual humility

It’s hard for an admissions committee not to notice when a student has demonstrated a sincere love of learning. A real love of learning has a lot less to do with the drive to get good grades than it does the genuine curiosity to know more, to understand, to fill in learning’s blank spots. A student who gushes about the joy she finds working through the most difficult calculus problem sets with her fellow math-letes is demonstrating more love of learning than the student who responds to a query about his favorite subject with, “I like math because there’s always a right answer.”

But nobody loves to learn everything equally, and colleges don’t expect that you will, either. That’s why the most appealing students balance their intellectual curiosity with intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is the confidence to admit what you don’t know, to consider different points of view, and even to find something fascinating simply because it’s beyond your comprehension. It lets you admit the absence of knowledge while still respecting the subject. The student who discusses why she loves Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is demonstrating intellectual curiosity. A student who relates how he wanted to read the book but couldn’t get past page 50 because he just couldn’t understand it is demonstrating intellectual humility. And both are demonstrating traits that will help them learn, grow, and succeed in college.

College admissions pressure pushes some kids to focus so much on demonstrating what they know that they lose the joy of discovering knowledge and the comfort with the absence of it. But the most rewarding learning happens when you pair both together.

Learning and growth

Two of the most valuable experiences you can seek, appreciate, and relate on a college application are learning and growth.

Learning and growth take place in lots of forms, and not all of them present as successes or achievements. Teaching yourself to play the drums and then starting a band qualifies, but so does flubbing your trumpet solo due to lack of practice and resolving never to let yourself or the jazz band down again. Overcoming your struggles in AP chemistry is a pride-worthy achievement, but so is bringing your very best effort, meeting with your teacher regularly for extra help, and still scraping by with a C-. Always doing the right thing is wonderful, but so is the sincere apology you offer to make things right after you let someone down. The learning and growth are there in all those scenarios.

Expecting—or presenting—yourself to move seamlessly from one mistake-free success to the next is unrealistic. Learning and growth come in many forms, but that overall forward progress, sometimes in leaps, sometimes in incremental steps, and sometimes to make up for lost ground, is what helps you get better with age. And it’s what makes you an appealing candidate for colleges.

Seek and benefit from opportunities to learn and grow, and you’ll have no trouble presenting yourself as someone who will continue that progress once you get to college.

Learn from what’s worked

One of the benefits of working with talented people you respect is engaging in reasonable debates over complex questions. That happened this week with a group of our managers discussing a potential opportunity for us at Collegewise. There were plenty of smart, plausible arguments on both sides, one of which was that when we tried something not unlike this before, it didn’t go as well as we’d hoped.

But one of our directors, Tara, reminded us: “Stop getting hung up on what didn’t work with your ex. You’ll never be able to move on.”

What great advice.

Sure, you can and probably should try to learn from your failures or mistakes. But those lessons are usually limited to what not to do. The takeaway is inaction, not action. The lessons just prevent you from making the exact same mistake in the exact same situation again. But success, on the other hand, teaches you what to do. You can repeat those actions and the ensuing success. Learning what to do is a lot more useful than learning what not to do.

You can’t become a great quarterback just by learning 100 plays that didn’t work. You won’t make a great dinner just by learning cooking mistakes that ruin meals. And you can’t increase your investment returns simply by avoiding risky investments. Preventing failures is good, but achieving success is even better.

And for that, you’ve got to learn from what’s worked.

If it were all just a lottery

Students, here’s a three-step process to add a little more joy to—and remove some stress from—your college admissions process.

1. Consider this question: If college admissions were nothing more than a lottery—no application or evaluation at all, just buy a ticket (limit one per applicant) to enter the lottery at any college that interests you, cross your fingers, and hope the luck-of-the-draw swings your way—what would you do differently? Really think about it. If the entire process were nothing more than just a random game of chance, what specific changes would you make in your life?

2. Make a list of the changes you identified in response to the question above.

3. Now, take a good hard look at each item on the list and ask yourself, “What is stopping me from making this change right now?” Answer as specifically as you can.

Sure, for many, you’ll probably have legit answers about what’s stopping you. You couldn’t make long-term resolutions to sleep until noon, refuse to do your homework, or play video games from dawn to dusk all day every day because those changes would probably prevent you from graduating high school, much less attending college.

But I’d wager you’ll have a hard time coming up will real, evidence-based answers preventing you from making every proposed change.

You have more control, more agency, more power to decide what you do and don’t do than you might think.

And even if only one item were legitimately doable, wouldn’t it be worth doing?

Celebrate the certainties

If I could pick one practice that most robs the joy from what should be the exciting time of applying to college for a family, it’s conditional celebration. Celebrating if the SAT score breaks a certain (arbitrary) barrier. Celebrating if the semester grades reach a certain numerical GPA. Celebrating if the dream school says yes. Conditional celebration turns the entire process into a competition defined by winning and losing.

The fix? Celebrate the certain.

A student is certain to submit their first college application. Celebrate it.

A student is certain to submit their final college application. Celebrate it.

A student is certain to be admitted to at least one college (provided that student applies to at least one counselor-approved safety school). Celebrate it.

Just because something is certain to occur doesn’t make it any less deserving of a celebration. If it did, nobody would celebrate birthdays, Thanksgiving, or the arrival of summer break.

In some communities of students without the right resources and support, those outcomes may not be so certain. What a great reminder for everyone that successfully preparing for, applying to, and getting into any college is worthy of celebration, no matter what your dream school says.

Celebrating certainties along the path to college isn’t arbitrarily injecting faux merriment into the process. It’s acknowledging that a teenager is getting closer to a life-impacting four years along the path to adulthood, an outcome they’ve worked to earn.

High stakes, judgment, and uncertainty don’t exactly make for happy times. It’s no wonder so many families look back on the admissions process as one filled with anxiety and dread. The fastest way to turn those feelings around is to identify the certain but still important eventualities for each student and to inject some well-deserved celebration.

Reject the conditional, embrace the certain, and let your celebrations begin.

Don’t let fear drive the bus

Fear can sometimes be a healthy emotion. That big upcoming chemistry test, that big game next week, that big dog baring its teeth–fear can put an end to dawdling and move you to immediate action. Studying for that test, practicing your plays, getting the hell away from that dog… You’ve got fear, in part or in full, to thank.

But fear tends to do terrible things to kids and parents during the college application process.

Fear is the reason kids apply to 25 schools, many of which they don’t actually know much about or even want to attend.

Fear is the reason some parents choose the schools or complete the applications or even write the essays for their student.

Fear is the reason kids ask for feedback on their essays from anyone willing to read them, regardless of whether those people know anything about college admission essays.

Fear is the reason parents compare accolades and test scores and college acceptances with other parents.

Fear is the reason that kids hijack their completed applications and refuse to send them until right before the deadline. After all, once you hit send, it’s officially out of your hands and off to the committee.

Fear is the reason so many students and parents exhibit behaviors they would never embrace or endorse in other areas of their lives. That’s what the pressure around college admissions can do to some people.

There’s no magic pill to take to make this kind of fear go away. But you can recognize it for what it is. Here’s how.

When you’re feeling anxious and you’re about to take action, ask yourself:

Am I doing this because it’s a fundamentally good idea? Am I doing this because it will help me get where I want to go? Am I doing this because I will feel good knowing I’ve taken this step?

Or am I doing this only because I’m afraid?

You don’t back away from a snarling dog just because you’re afraid. You do it because it’s a smart thing to do, because you want to be safe, and because it gets you where you want to go.

But you’re not applying to 25 mostly unfamiliar (to you) colleges because it’s a smart strategy. You’re doing it because you’re afraid. And fear alone is rarely accompanied by a logical course of action.

If you want to get to where you really want to go, get good directions, follow a smart route, and ask for help if you get lost. But whatever you do, don’t let fear drive the bus.