No stopping you

As college decisions roll in this month, many students are experiencing a feeling they’ve never experienced before to a significant degree—failure. Getting a denial from your dream college is actually not a failure at all. You worked hard and should be commended for your efforts. But it can certainly feel like failure when all your effort and desire to attend just didn’t seem to pan out.

This is one of those times when advice you get today will actually be a lot more helpful in the future, but here it is. You will actually be better for this.

The high school universe of college preparation sets up a vision for teens where perfection, at least on paper, is actually attainable. Some students will complete the high school years having earned perfect grades, perfect test scores, and a list of accolades that demonstrates there really was no room for improvement.

But if even those seemingly perfect students decide to maintain their drive to be successful, they’ll eventually learn that perfection is not possible, and that failure is inevitable. That’s reality, not pessimism. Read the biography of just about any successful person in any field and it will include some failure along the way. And part of what makes someone successful is their ability to learn, regroup, and bounce back.

I know it’s disappointing not to get the admissions news you were hoping for. Nobody expects you to shake it off overnight (though if you can, please do!). But don’t beat yourself up. Don’t do an autopsy of your admissions process in an effort to discover what went wrong. Don’t second guess your essay topic or scold yourself for that B- in bio or regret that you didn’t sit for the SAT a fourth time. None of those things take you toward a productive outcome. And they just make you feel worse.

Instead, remind yourself how many of your college goals can be accomplished at those schools that said yes. Hold your head high, secure that your hard work will pay off no matter where you go. And most importantly, remember that experiencing this disappointment means that you’re part of a special group who sets and pursues goals even without the guarantee that you’ll reach them. That’s the mark of a successful person. And so is a productive reaction to this news.

Everyone who aims high occasionally falls short. Everyone also needs to learn how to respond productively when things don’t go as planned. If you receive disappointing news this month, consider it your crash course. That level of disappointment was going to happen for the first time at some point—you just got your first out of the way. Use it as your opportunity to learn, regroup, and bounce back. Wherever you go to college, if you can get those skills down, there will be no stopping you.

It’s not you, it’s me

Whether you’re a student who needs help from a teacher, a counselor who’s navigating a conversation that’s more difficult than you’d anticipated, or a parent who’s facing conflict in your work or organization, start with, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

I must not be understanding this right.

I’m not doing a good job explaining this.

I should have told you more about this sooner.

Then ask for help.

Can you help me see what I’m missing?

How can I do a better job?

What information would be helpful for you to have before we go any further?

Now, you’ve changed the interaction. Instead of putting the other party on the defensive, you’re now inviting them to work towards a mutual resolution. And working together is easier than competing to win.

You might not, in fact, be at fault. But if you start by assuming that you are, it makes it easier for the other party to see that it just might be them.

The role of role-players

Collegewise students will often ask some version of the question, “But what if I’m not the best?

With so much measurement and comparison that’s become part of the college admissions process, it’s natural for students to look at every learning or activity pile and assume not only that whoever resides atop it must be the admissions shoo-in, but also that those further down the list have somehow come up short.

The reality? Not every student can be at the top of the class. Not everyone will be named the MVP, first chair violinist, or perennial debate tournament champion. Not everyone can be student body president or team captain or editor of the yearbook. Yes, colleges appreciate the work ethic and passion necessary to achieve. But honors, awards, and other accolades are just one way to show those traits. Another way is to be the role player that helps those groups succeed.

If you’ve often felt dejected about your admissions chances because your hard work doesn’t translate into the brag-worthy lines on a college application, I hope you’ll listen to “The Team of Humble Stars,” an episode of University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant’s podcast. His discussion of the role of, well, role-players will give you some encouraging insights that your contributions can be just as valuable when they’re part of a larger group’s success as they can when driving your individual achievement.

Every group needs role players. And they have the same opportunities to stand out if they play those roles well.


What will you have to show?

I received an unsolicited email from a graphic designer today. It had a bullet-pointed list of services he offers, from logo designs, to business cards, to brochures, websites and social media pages. It closed with an invitation to email him back if I’d like to get started.

An email like that is easy to delete, which is exactly what I did.

Why would a graphic designer rely on text alone to sell his services? He’s just telling me what he can do. Why not show me?

Even better than asking me to click over to your portfolio, which I have no emotional connection to, why not send me three mock-ups of what you would do if we worked together?

Here’s what I’d make your homepage look like.

Here’s the business card I’d create.

And here’s what I’d do with your logo to make it more appealing and memorable.

Had he done that, I could have seen the change he’d make. And if I liked what I saw, he’d have given me a problem. I now have to decide to either satisfy that interest by responding, or ignoring what’s enticing and choosing to stay with the status quo. Creating a problem like that for a potential customer—one where they can see the benefit and have to decide whether to engage or ignore it, is a good sales strategy.

The “show, don’t tell” method is an effective one for college applicants, too. Instead of  using the application to tell the reader about the important lessons you’ve learned and the appealing qualities you’ve displayed in high school, show them how those lessons and qualities have impacted, improved, or otherwise changed the people, projects, and organizations you’ve chosen to spend time with. You don’t need extra, unsolicited materials to do it. Just tell stories and be specific. That’s how you move from telling to showing within a college application.

If you’re an underclassman whose college applications are (thankfully) still in front of you, don’t worry about how you’ll pitch, package, or otherwise market yourself to schools. You are not a widget in need of a promotional strategy. You are a complex human being whose contributions can be compelling enough if you just have something to show.

“Will this look good to colleges?” is the wrong question to ask. Instead, start asking yourself, “What will I have to show for this?”

The more you have to show for it, the stronger applicant you’ll be.

Do they share the outcome?

College admissions advice can come at you from all sides when you’re going through the process. From fellow students and parents to self-professed experts (some legitimate, some dubious), it can be difficult to distinguish who you should listen to and who you should ignore.

Whether the admissions-related advice comes from a paid professional, a stranger you met at a dinner party, or someone in between, vet it by asking two questions:

1. Will they benefit from your following the advice, regardless of the outcome?

2. Will they share the responsibility for the outcome if the advice proves ineffective?

Those two questions alone may not be sufficient. But they’ll help you eliminate those folks who have everything to gain, and those who have nothing to lose.

The best advice comes from those who share the outcome with you.

Room for the nice kid

I recall a B/C Collegewise student several years ago who in response to an essay prompt that asked him to describe his favorite activity wrote about the weekly poker nights he hosted at his house. What made the activity—and the essay—so great was not the poker, but the makeup of the group.

As he described it, the Friday poker nights were made up of kids who otherwise never intersected in the high school social circles. I still remember my favorite paragraph:

“Everyone is welcome at Poker Night. The only thing we shun are the roles we play at school. Jocks, band geeks, lefty vegans, brainiacs, the weird kid who wears shorts in the middle of winter, they join us. If you like cards and you have ten bucks, take a seat and we’ll deal you in. That’s why I want to spend some Friday nights in college playing cards in the dorm. I want to pull up a seat next to people I wouldn’t normally be sitting next to.”

What a wonderful sentiment. And what a great picture to paint in the minds of the admissions committee—the kid who will bring others together around the card table.

He was admitted to and later attended a school that was a reach for him at the time—UC Riverside.

Don’t assume that traditionally impressive activities are the only way to get colleges to appreciate you. There’s room for the nice kid who brings people together, too, even if he does so at poker night.

Needs vs. wants

The leadership at Collegewise had a mutual realization this week—we were starting to become too ASAP-driven.

Not in the work that our counselors do with students—great counseling demands that we balance the reality of application deadlines with the counseling discipline to be deliberate, thoughtful, and precise in our work with students. But over the last several months, we were increasingly having too many internal discussions that ended with the pressure of getting something done as soon as possible.

Being decisive is important in running a good business. Too many companies use meetings as a proxy for progress where the only decision made is to have yet another meeting.

But when too many new ideas, pitches, or initiatives begin with “Can we have a quick call to discuss?” and end with “How soon can we get this done?” you eliminate necessary thinking in the pursuit of the doing. We start our application work early with students because both the experience and the outcomes are much better without the pressure of pressing deadlines. Why were we imposing that pressure on ourselves in cases where it wasn’t necessary?

ASAP-for-everything is akin to saying that everything is equally important. And that’s just not true. We all want things done sooner rather than later. ASAP is implied. But we’re not firefighters or emergency room doctors. There are almost never dire consequences if we don’t act now. Nothing bad will happen to anyone if we wait a few days or even weeks. That’s not an excuse to be lazy. It’s the freedom to prioritize and to decide what truly deserves our time and attention today. Better to do what’s actually important than to chase what’s been indiscriminately labeled with ASAP.

It’s only been a few days since our team’s ASAP-realization, and I can already sense a change in our conversations and our focus. We’re still working just as hard. But we’re also learning that hard work and a sense of calm keep even better company in our company than hard work and a sense of urgency do.

Is your work, club, or organization too ASAP-focused? Are you treating everything as an equally pressing priority today instead of choosing those things that will best help you move forward tomorrow?

Just because you want something now doesn’t mean that you need it now. And it’s almost always more pressing to address your needs before your wants.

Let the student direct the scene

I’ll admit it. I’ve watched and enjoyed a few of those video collections of kids getting accepted to college (it’s the only time I’ve ever gotten misty from a Target commercial). What a special moment for those kids. How wonderful for a teen to experience so much well-deserved joy. And what a technological gift to capture it all on video.

Still, while many of those kids made the independent choice to capture and subsequently share their reactions, I can’t help but wonder how many had the choice made for them. Did they ask the entire family to gather around the computer? Did they request that their parents get the phones out and capture their moment? And does their comfort level change if the news turns out to be what they didn’t want to hear?

It’s late in the college notification game for me to have this insight, but given that many students are still awaiting acceptances, I’d like to remind families of a few things.

Students, remember that the arrival of this news and your subsequent reaction is yours alone. It’s not for your parents, your friends, or anyone else. There is no state law requiring you to invite the whole family to join you around the computer for the big reveal, to capture it on video to share, or to do anything else that injects entertainment and drama into a college telling you if you’ve been accepted. If you want to do those things, knock yourself out. But don’t do it out of obligation, social media pressure, or the sense that you’ll miss out forever if you don’t record the single moment of acceptance. Four years from now, you’ll have collected countless experiences, memories, and electronic captures of your college years that will mean even more than any video of your acceptance will.

And parents, please resist the urge to insert yourself into the decision-revealing moment unless your student invites you. If they choose to check their status with you in the room, no problem. If they ask you to record it, get the phone out. But if they’d really rather take a moment to receive the news on their own terms without an audience or the pressure of recording their reaction, please respect that. Would you want your son or daughter in the office with you recording your reaction to news about whether you’d been promoted or demoted or laid off? Your kids are the ones who’ve been evaluated and are about to be subsequently accepted or denied. That never gets easier at any age. Let them experience it the way they choose. Then be there to join them with unconditional love and support on the other side, no matter what the news.

There’s nothing wrong with using technology to enhance, share, and preserve life’s moments. But before anyone yells, “Action!” take five and let the student direct the scene.

Would you opt in to this rewards program?

Last week, the president of United Airlines sent a memo to their more than 80,000 employees promising “an exciting new rewards program.” The company was eliminating the quarterly bonuses they paid to employees who hit their performance targets. Instead, those employees would now all be entered into a lottery from which one randomly selected person would win $100,000. A handful of others would get luxury vacations or a new Mercedes.

Next scene:

1. Employees were furious.
2. They started an online petition on an internal company forum that criticized the policy.
3. 72 hours later, United sent a second email announcing that they had “pushed pause” on the program.

Students and parents, how would you have felt to receive that first memo? You earned your way into a group of high performers who did exactly what was asked of them. But now you’ve just learned that you have no control over your reward for your hard work. That reward is now entirely in the hands of others (or in this case, luck). And the rewards are limited to a lucky few, many of whom did not necessarily work harder, perform better, or deserve it more than those other top performers who were not picked.

If you’ve decided that the only acceptable outcome for your hard work in high school is an admission to a highly selective college, you’ve voluntarily entered yourself into a similar rewards program.

Apology rule #1: don’t make it worse

It hasn’t been a good few weeks for David Coleman, the president of the College Board. As reported in the press and discussed with incredulity among the counseling community, Coleman penned a letter to the College Board’s members (which includes schools, colleges, counselors, etc.), ostensibly in response to the Florida school shooting, that many readers saw as a tone-deaf promotion of the College Board’s own tests.

Then the College Board and Coleman made it worse with public apologies that included the line, “We sincerely apologize that our words have taken the focus away from the needs of their community at this terrible time.”

That apology didn’t just fail to make things better. It actually managed to make things even worse.

First, the statement read like it was crafted by a PR firm rather than a human who was actually sorry. But it’s also the apology equivalent of “I’m sorry this happened” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It sounds like regret on the surface, but there’s really no evidence of contrition, or worse, of understanding just why the apology was so necessary.

People and organizations make mistakes. Sometimes they make bad mistakes. If you make one yourself that deserves an expression of apology, the formula is a simple one: express a genuine apology, explain why it was necessary, and lay out how you plan to make it right or, at the very least, avoid making the mistake again.

What if the College Board had said something like:

We are so sorry. The College Board is privileged to have the collective attention of educators we respect and kids who will take any test we design, and we squandered that attention with an email we never should have sent. We’re embarrassed that we got it so wrong at perhaps the worst possible time. It’s clear to us that we need to be better than this for you and for students, and we hope you’ll give us the chance to model better behavior and better writing in the future.

Would that have made everything right? Probably not. But it wouldn’t have made it worse.