Focus on a change

Seniors, as you begin the college application process, here’s a tip to help you choose and present compelling experiences, involvements, and accomplishments—focus on a change that took place.

Change usually makes for a good read, a before-and-after story of transformation in which change is the crucial ingredient.

What inspired the change that turned you from an average to a top student?

What changed that made your uncomfortable new school feel like home?

What changed that made you finally try choir, or leave the after-school couch for an after-school job, or decide you were in fact good at math and science?

Focusing on the change itself often reveals a person who inspired you, an insight you had about yourself, or a discovery that led to action. And those are often the hidden gems that aren’t revealed just by listing an activity or accomplishment on an application.

Don’t inject deep meaning or learning that wasn’t there. That’s why there are so many “I learned that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything” essays.

But if a person, event, viewpoint, circumstance, etc. caused you to make a small or a big change, whatever inspired the transformation is often a subject worth relating and even explaining.

Some changes are made arbitrarily when you wake up and just decide to try something different. But many more are not. So if there is a story behind the change, consider sharing it.

Where you were before and where you are today can be interesting in their own right. But almost never as much so as the change that turned the before of yesterday into the after of today.

One choice to make?

If you could only choose one:

class to take…
activity to invest in…
activity to leave behind…
teacher to write your letter of rec…
subject to know more about…
strength to maximize…
friend to spend more time with…
achievement to share with colleges…
person to take college admissions advice from…

…what choice would you make?

Whatever the answer is, it’s worth taking a moment to consider not just why it made the list, but also if you’re giving that choice the attention it deserves.

Not everything can or should be whittled down to one choice. But not everything deserves equal time and attention, either.

Change the posture, change the game

Today, I’m attending the 50th anniversary celebration of the UC Irvine Summer Orientation Program, an organization I’d never heard of when I applied to the school, but that ultimately defined my entire college experience.

I attended the program as an incoming freshman, spent two summers working as a volunteer staffer, and was eventually hired to help run it during my senior year of college.

It was during this program that I first considered working in the field of education. I was 21 years old and experiencing the joy of working hard with people I admired in the service of something we believed in (it’s not a coincidence that this is exactly what Collegewise is for those of us here today).

My first experience with public speaking, writing to a large audience, interviewing and hiring, and, in one case, firing an employee, all took place during the years I worked with summer orientation.

My boss who became my mentor (and who would one day enroll her son at Collegewise)? I have the program to thank for the influence she’s had in my life.

Fourteen years later, summer orientation brought me back as a guest speaker to welcome the new college freshmen.

And today, I’ll be heading to the reunion with four of my closest college friends—a heart surgeon, a dentist, an editor, and an electrical engineer—guys I’ve known for over 25 years. All of us are coming back to the school and to the program we once called home.

But all that opportunity, all the learning, all the fun and friends and impact this program has made in my life since I was 18 years old–none of it was predictable. UC Irvine couldn’t have promised those outcomes in the pre-internet brochure I read. All they could do was present boundless opportunities inside and outside of the classroom for me and other students to choose from. Not everything panned out for me in the same way. But once I found summer orientation, I made the most of my opportunity.

I pound the drum daily on this blog that what you do in college is more important than where you do it, that hundreds and hundreds of colleges, not just the famous ones, can offer you opportunities for learning, growth, and fun if you’re willing to seek and take advantage of them. It’s not just an idealistic belief. It’s a fundamental truth about the American college education system.

I’ve watched this lesson play out for my friends from college, for hundreds of eager, wide-eyed freshmen who came through the summer orientation program, and for thousands of Collegewise students who found and went on to thrive at the right colleges—some famous, many not—for them.

As the next wave of senior families prepares for their students to enter the college application process, I know many of you are anxious about the unknown. But I’m here to tell you that the unknown is where the surprises are waiting. Yes, be thoughtful and make informed choices—this is too important to leave entirely to chance. But remember that the sources of the life-changing magic of college often surprise those changed by them. And it’s those surprises that can make all the difference. You can decide to fear them, or you can eagerly await them.

Put a different way, if the college admissions process seems far more stressful than it does enjoyable, try changing “We don’t know what will happen” to “We can’t wait to find out.”

That change of posture just might change the game.

And happy 50th birthday, summer orientation.

A fresh start?

It’s not uncommon for a student to lose interest in an activity they used to love. They’ve taken karate classes, jumped hurdles, or played the French horn for a long time. But then the fun, the learning, or the rewards stop. Do you quit and move to something else, or forge ahead?

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a temporary low point and a permanent loss of love within a chosen activity. And I don’t have a foolproof prescription for deciding when it’s time to move on. But, “I’ve just done it for so long” alone is almost never a good reason to stick with something.

Yes, colleges seek and appreciate students who have shown the capacity to commit to something that matters to them. Commitment combined with energy leads to impact. If you’re constantly flitting from one activity to the next, you don’t give yourself and any activity a chance to realize—or show colleges—what you’re capable of together.

But reluctantly plodding along in the name of commitment is no way to stand out, either. And when your only reason to continue is that you’ve been continuing for so long, maybe it’s time to consider renewing your energy with a fresh start doing something else.

A faster path to indispensability

I’m consistently reminded that the people who ask great questions contribute as much as, if not more than, those who have great answers.

It takes time, brains, opportunity, and luck to be the smartest person in the room. But the field to be the most inquisitive is often wide open.

A faster path to indispensability: talk less, listen more, and ask great questions.

Rarely just one chapter

The high school

The essay

The connection

The hook

The background

The interview

None of those things alone get a student into college. They can influence a decision in some cases, but they don’t have the power to change an admissions “no” into an acceptance.

So be wary when someone claims a student “got in because of…,” however that sentence may finish. Unless they were in the room when the decision was made (or they’re a high school counselor who had communication with the admissions office), the person making the claim doesn’t know the real story. And the real story is rarely just one chapter.

More on strengths over weaknesses

The research and the experts keep showing up to endorse focusing on strengths—our own, and our kids’—rather than fixing weaknesses. Lea Walters is a positive psychology researcher and the author of The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish.

As shared in her recent piece:

Three decades of research point to the advantages of taking a strength-based approach in our lives, including better work performance, greater levels of happiness at work, and greater likelihood of staying at work.

Research shows that the benefits of playing to strengths spill over outside of work, too: more happiness in marriage, higher levels of physical health, better recovery after illness, increased life satisfaction, and higher self-esteem.

Studies have also found that helping your kids play to their strengths helps them to develop resilience, build optimism, do better at school, handle friendship stress, and much more.

Rest to take and work to do

Sports fans (and sports participants) understand the role of the off-season. It’s a time for athletes to heal and to take a break—physically and mentally—from the day-to-day grind of practice and the relentless pressure of competition. But the off-season is also a time to prepare, to study, and to improve. Athletes will train, work on important components of their game, and address any areas that will help them compete when the next season arrives. Done correctly, this balance of recovery and recommitment means that an athlete arrives at the start of the next season primed for performance. Don’t show up run-down. Don’t show up out of shape. Show up rested and ready to get to work.

High school seniors should view their summer the same way.

If your junior year felt like a nine-month sprint full of AP classes, standardized tests, and extracurriculars, if sufficient downtime became a lost luxury, the summer is your time to rest and recover. Get eight hours of sleep on a regular basis. Spend time with your friends and family. Do things that make you happy, especially those that have absolutely nothing to do with getting into college. That’s the resting part of your off-season, and it’s crucial for your future readiness and performance.

But the senior year will eventually arrive. And in addition to the usual rigors, you’ll have college applications and the associated deadlines to contend with. Why not use the summer to help you prepare and to ensure you don’t have to start the (college application) season out of shape?

During your summer off-season, you can research and finalize your college list. You can begin and even complete some of your college applications and essays. You can retake a standardized test or assemble a required portfolio or prepare a schedule of what needs to be done and when.

Best of all, each of those tasks can exist concurrently with a consistent regimen of rest and recovery. Much as it does for an athlete, an effective off-season should be about striking a balance, one that leaves you ready to perform when the season officially begins.

The off-season, like the season itself, won’t last forever. You’ve got to take advantage of it when it’s presented to you. So don’t miss it. Don’t enjoy so much downtime that you arrive to the season out of application shape, but don’t press so hard that you’re run-down before the season even begins. You’ve got rest to take and work to do. And the off-season is your opportunity for both.

One room, smart people, and no agenda

Sometimes the best ideas—for a company, for a school, for a club or organization—come from the newest members. This week, I joined Collegewise Orientation for Class 40, a crop of seven new Collegewisers finding their footing during their first week of work. While enjoying dinner on night one, Zain, one of our new online counselors, shared a deceptively simple approach that just about any group could embrace.

“If you want to get good ideas, put smart people in a room and don’t tell them what to talk about.”

I often push back on the idea of “Let’s have a meeting.” All too often, meetings go too long, involve too many people, and decide nothing other than to schedule yet another meeting. I push to meet only when it’s necessary, to have tight agendas when we do, and to make sure there is a specific outcome intended. I still believe that’s a good approach to meetings at work, but the reminder was a good one.

When college admissions officers are assembling a class, they’re doing so driven in large part by the belief that if they bring smart, engaged, diverse groups of students with different interests, perspectives, and backgrounds together, they’ll learn from each other. That’s a lot like what we’re trying to do with assembling our teams at Collegewise.

If you want to unlock the genius within your group, I’d do three things right away:

  1. Recognize that the more people you have thinking about how to make your organization even better, the better your organization will be.
  2.  Ask the new people what they see, what they notice, and what they think. Fresh eyes can be the antidote for stale environments.
  3. Regularly put smart people in a room, and don’t tell them what to talk about.

You might be surprised by how much you–and they–learn.