What you don’t yet know

Students, four years ago, who were you and what did you know? It doesn’t matter whether you’re 18 or 14 today. Chances are that when you scan back four years, you’ll do some serious head-shaking. You likely felt at the time like you’d grown wise beyond your years. But the benefit of four years of hindsight points out that much of that confidence came from simply not yet knowing what you didn’t yet know.

Now, imagine yourself in the future walking across the stage at your college graduation.

Compared to today, how much will you know then? How much will you have learned, seen, and experienced? How many people will you have met, how much fun will you have enjoyed, and how many opportunities will you have had to learn from your successes and mistakes?

What will you have learned about yourself and the world around you? How much will you know then that you don’t yet know today?

No matter how knowledgeable and confident you may be now, how do you imagine the you on that stage in the future will view the you of today?

And most importantly, do you honestly believe that only a prestigious college can usher in those wonderful insights and changes?

You don’t yet know what you don’t know today. But there are plenty of colleges beyond the famous ones to help you make the wonderful leap from not knowing to knowing.

Good. Enough.

Projects, papers, college applications—how do you know when it’s time to stop polishing and time to start shipping it out the door?

Something worth doing is worth doing well. But sometimes the quest for perfection just becomes a stall, another day or week to hide instead of a day or week to improve whatever it is you’re working on.

“Good enough” has a pejorative connotation, like you stopped short of making something as good as it possibly could have been. Instead, try for a new outcome using the same two words.

“Good. Enough.”

You can make something great, and avoid unnecessary stalling, when you give up “perfect” (which it never is) and replace it with “Good. Enough.”

Responding vs. correcting

Counselors, how do you respond when a student or parent makes a statement as if it’s a fact?

That college is a lot easier to get into if you apply in the liberal arts.

Without a great SAT score, the best colleges won’t even look at you.

That school gives preference to ______ (alumni/athletes/minorities, etc.).

They’re not asking you a question. They’re not seeking your opinion. But you also have a professional responsibility. To let a factually inaccurate statement go unchecked, especially one that could affect the student’s college planning, is a tacit endorsement of the statement.

Here’s a non-confrontational way to consider responding:

“Oh, really? That hasn’t been my experience.”

Tone is everything here. Say it as if you’re simply curious, not combative. Use the same voice you’d use if responding, “Really? That’s interesting.”

Many students and parents will then choose to engage further, especially if the topic is one that affects decisions they’re making. And then you’re in the role of responding to their inquiry, not correcting their misinformation.

Competing collaboratively

Another great share from Wharton’s Adam Grant. In his podcast episode this week, “Become friends with your rivals,” Grant explores how even in those competitions that are zero sum, like Olympic marathon races, where there can only be one winner, rivals actually perform better when they help each other. My favorite clip:

“Some competitions are zero sum. But our feelings about competing don’t have to be. Supportive rivalries click into place when you’re working towards something larger than your own success. Find a rival you admire. Tell them why you respect them. Explore what you can accomplish together. And then bring on the friendly competition. And bring it on as hard as you can.”

If you’re a high school student with someone in your circle you identify as a rival–a fellow student who shares the top spot in the class with you, the actress with whom you always compete for lead roles, or a competitive runner on another school’s cross country team–what would happen if you found a way to help each other be better? Not at the expense of your own progress and success, but in support of it?

Imagine the student at the top of the class going to her rival and suggesting they pair up to help each other prepare for their most difficult exams, while simultaneously tutoring their fellow students who were struggling in those courses. Neither would refrain from trying to best the other on exam day. But they’d make each other—and their classmates—even better. And there’s not a single college that wouldn’t take notice of their commitment to competing collaboratively.

“I don’t know”

In her latest newsletter, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author Angela Duckworth reminds us of the value of intellectual humility.

“Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

Do engage with people with genuine intellectual humility. When you’re asked a question you haven’t considered before, consider it a gift. And, perhaps, like the professor I was admiring the other day, follow ‘I don’t know’ with ‘Thank you. Great question. I’ll need to work on that.’”

And here’s a past post of mine on the value of intellectual humility in the college admissions process.

Run a namebranditis test

Do you have namebranditis, a condition causing those afflicted to fixate on prestigious colleges due only to their names (and to vague reasons like “it’s a great school”)?

Here’s an easy test.

Imagine that every school ranked in the US News Top 50 all decided overnight to adopt new names that bear no connection to the university. Harvard becomes “Eastern Higher Learning.” Stanford becomes “Big Sky University.” Yale becomes “Life Prep College.” And any student admitted must sign a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting any mention (including on a future resume) of the former name. So you couldn’t tell an employer you’d gone to “the school that used to be called Harvard.”

Now, gauge your level of interest. If you’re still just as excited about the idea of attending (or of your student attending) one of those formerly famous schools, that’s a sign you’re considering it for the right reasons for you. But if you’d be less interested, if you’d be crushed to learn an admission would mean attaching yourself to a less famous name, it’s a sign you’ve likely got a case of namebranditis. It’s also an indicator that it’s time to think more deeply about what you hope or expect to gain from your college experience, and what type of schools are most likely to offer those opportunities.

Is this worth it?

The newswires—and the college admissions community’s social media posts—were filled yesterday with the breaking story of a 25-million-dollar scheme to help wealthy parents buy their kids’ way into highly selective colleges, including Yale, Georgetown, and USC. A well-known private counselor was charged with running the racketeering scheme, and several Hollywood celebrities were also included in the indictment.

And with every repost and every mention of this story, I kept wondering the same thing. Even to the most prestige-obsessed family, is this really worth it?

I don’t even mean from a financial standpoint, as the wealth of these parents, some of whom paid sums in excess of $500,000, clearly exceeds any pain of payment. But is it worth the risk-to-reward ratio?

Is it so important for some parents to see their kids attend a prestigious college that they’ll risk a federal indictment to buy a spot? Are they really comfortable setting the example for their kids that it’s OK to use your money to break the law to get what you want?

What drove them to take such an extraordinary risk? Was it the status symbol and bragging rights? Did they think it would be a family blemish to send their student to a less-famous college? Or did they generally believe that in spite of all the privilege bestowed upon their kids, they’d still be at a life disadvantage if they attended a school that didn’t land on the US News rankings?

College admissions combined with wanting the best for our kids breeds parental irrationality. But this is a level I just can’t get my head around.

So here’s my question to families: Are your current efforts worth it?

The SAT classes, the tutoring, the activities and coaching and guidance aimed at securing a better college admissions outcome–is it worth it?

I’m in the business of guiding families through this process, so clearly, I see value in all of those things. But the value will and should be different for every family. And more importantly, there should always be a line, a line where the family says, “We’re willing to do a lot of things, but we’re not willing to do that.”

I won’t prescribe where you should draw your line (at a minimum, please draw it long before you break the law). But I’d start by continually asking yourself, “Does this feel worth it?”

And if it doesn’t feel worth it, I’d listen to that instinct.

Start a to-don’t list

Sticking with the theme from my post last week reminding readers that quitting isn’t inherently bad, Penn’s prolific professor of organizational psychology, Adam Grant, is back again with this article advocating the use of a “to don’t” list.

And if you’re intrigued by the strategy, you might be interested to know that Grant isn’t the only authority who recommends doing less. Stanford professor Jim Collins calls it a “Stop Doing” list. Study skills author Cal Newport calls it under-scheduling. Author Marcus Buckingham says in his book The One Thing You Need to Know that the key to sustained success and happiness is to “Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it.” And as the least authoritative of the above, I’ll end with my past post, “Five things to stop doing.”

Know what you don’t know

For seniors making decisions about which college to attend, it might be helpful to acknowledge what you don’t know.

For example, you don’t know if you’ll love being a biology major. You don’t know if you’ll get along with your roommate. You don’t know if you’ll miss home, or get a good internship next summer, or find the right study abroad opportunity.

Sure, you likely have inclinations. If you’ve chosen a major, you did so because you’re interested in the subject and it seems to make sense based on what you know today. But you may not be sure. How could you be? You haven’t started yet! That’s the way making big decisions works. There are always unknowns.

So you have two options. The first? You can wrestle with the uncertainty, and there are lots of ways to do that. Ignoring it. Pretending it’s not there. Force feeding more information in an attempt to make the uncertain certain. But if something is actually uncertain, if it really is more than just a lack of information and is based on an outcome that hasn’t happened yet, these tactics aren’t likely to work.

The other option is to identify, accept, and sit with the unknowns. Not to ignore them, not to minimize them, and not to write them off as unimportant. But to carefully consider and give them their appropriate weight, fully accepting that they are uncertainties that will be made certain in the future.

It’s liberating to do this. It frees you of the tension of the unknown and allows you to focus on the more useful knowns. And when you do, please remember that knowns can still be uncertainties. For example, you might know that based on the research you’ve done, your current interests, and your intended career plan as it stands today, majoring in biology is a good decision for you. Today, that’s known. And you should embrace that. What happens tomorrow is still unknown, and that’s OK.

I think college decisions should be informed and thoughtful. Ask the advice of people you trust and who know you well. Talk with your counselor to make sure your impressions of the college are accurate. Due diligence has its place here.

But don’t waste time struggling to make knowns out of unknowns. That just leads to anxiety and decision paralysis as you wait for a certainty that will never arrive.

Sometimes the certainties become clearer when you know what you don’t know.

Advice on planning campus visits

“Visit your schools to get a feel for the campus!”

It’s common college planning advice, but also difficult to follow. Depending on how many colleges you plan on visiting and the distance they are from your home, the process can be complex, expensive, and exhausting. If you’d like some advice on making the process more manageable, join Collegewise counselors Kelsey De Haan and Jazzmin Lu at our upcoming free webinar.

How to Get the Most Out of College Visits
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

You can find all the information and make your reservation here. We hope you can join us.