Stay the course

At the conclusion of our holiday break during our freshman year of college, my roommate Craig and I packed our duffel bags into his 1986 Toyota Celica and set off from our homes in the San Francisco Bay Area to return to our dorm at UC Irvine. The driving directions to do so looked something like this:

1. Take the 5 Freeway South for 500 miles.
2. Exit at Culver and turn right.

That’s it.

And we still managed to get lost.

About halfway to our destination, one of us suggested a possible shortcut. I don’t recall who came up with that bright idea, but I do remember us both embracing it enthusiastically. 90 minutes later, we were still so turned around on side streets that we had absolutely no idea where we were. By the time we got back to the freeway and resolved to literally and figuratively stay the course, we’d lost almost two hours of time. The illusive pursuit of a magical, undiscovered shortcut proved fruitless, which wasn’t surprising. Thousands and thousands of drivers had driven that route before us. If a better path existed, it would no longer have been a secret.

I would never tell a family to plod through the college admissions process like a laborious chore that just needs to be endured. There are both effective and ineffective ways to manage this time, and you can save yourself a lot of frustration and wasted effort by being thoughtful and seeking the right advice. When other people tell you that applying to college is stressful, difficult, demoralizing, etc., it’s likely that their approach—not the process itself—is what’s causing those problems.

But while you might hear that someone was admitted to their dream college because they applied under an obscure major, or connected with an admissions officer over email, or took some other seemingly simple but previously undiscovered shortcut to get there, like the long stretch of 5 freeway connecting Northern and Southern California, there is no universally foolproof, easier, faster way. If there were, someone would have discovered it already, plenty of others would have followed, and the secret would by now be the norm.

If you accept the reality that there is no secret passageway to the college of your dreams, you can stop the fruitless search that will only lead you to dead end side streets. Pick the right destinations for you, get good directions ahead of time, then stay the course.

A million dollars on the line

The next time you attend a class, show up to work, counsel a student, etc., imagine you and your cohorts were being silently observed and evaluated all day by a committee whose job was to decide who made the biggest impact that day. The best part? The winner gets a one million dollar prize.

Would you slouch through that class without raising your hand?

Would you do what’s asked at work, but nothing more?

Would you explain away a student’s concern about her college essay in a rush to get to your next appointment?

Not if there were a million dollars on the line. You’d spend the entire day leaning in, looking for ways to do better and to contribute more, to help not just yourself get ahead, but also those around you. After all, if you’re being measured on impact, why limit it to yourself? Spreading your best, most generous efforts around makes your impact grow, too.

What would happen if you spent today as if a million dollars were on the line? What if you did it again tomorrow? What if you made it a habit?

Imagine how things might change if your default were to show up as if a million dollars were on the line. There’s no playbook for being successful. But it’s hard to see how you could ever go wrong with this strategy.

Just showing up

“Just showing up” can have both positive and negative connotations.

When parents go to back-to-school night, when a student attends the extra help sessions their calculus teacher offers at lunch, when a counselor stays late at a conference because the last session offered just might help their students, just showing up is everything. You didn’t have to be there. There’s no guarantee that showing up will actually help you. But because you care enough, because you’re invested in the outcomes, you’re there. Once you’ve opted to clear that hurdle, you’re likely to do what you need to do to make that decision pay off in some way. Just showing up is the hard part.

But when a parent spends most of their son’s football game scrolling through their phone, when a student sits listlessly in their English class waiting for the sweet release of the bell, when a counselor begrudgingly attends an in-service day and generates more eye-rolls than they do notes, you’re there, but you’re not invested. And if you’re there out of obligation, just showing up is the easy part.

Which kind of just showing up are you doing?

What happens here, and no place else?

What if the next time you toured a college, or attended a college’s presentation at your school, or visited a college fair, you asked the school’s representative to tell you a story about something that happens at that college that would not happen anywhere else?

Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant advises that job applicants ask potential employers this question about their workplaces, and I thought it was just genius. An employer (or a college) can’t duck that question with a long list of generalities. To really answer it, they’ll need to tell you a story about something specific that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.

“You get a lot of interaction with professors here.” Not a good answer. You can get that at plenty of other schools, too.


“For 20 years at the beginning of every finals week, our Nobel Prize-winning chemistry professor has cooked breakfast for her students at her house. Her banana nut pancakes are absolutely legendary on campus. Students who aren’t even chemistry majors ask if they can attend just to taste for themselves.”

Now you’ve got something specific.

P.S. Good lesson for college essays, too.

Parents, let them have their big days

DayCampDay1This week, my wife and I did something we’ve never done before—we dropped our two-and-a-half-year-old son off at day camp.

Not with Grandma and Grandpa, not with a trusted babysitter we—and he—knew, but a group environment with 30 other 2-7 year-olds he’d never met, supervised by adults who’d only learned his name just minutes before.

As we were leaving, we looked back to see him across the playground waving good bye to us from the sandbox, knowing he would spend the nine hours there in the care of people we, too, had just met. I swear I felt like we were abandoning him and that Child Protective Services would soon be investigating us.

I’ve spent every day of the last eight years writing about—among other things—the need for parents to step back and support their kids without hovering. And I’ve spent every day of the last two-and-a-half years seeing for myself just how hard that can be to do. It feels good to know that our kids are under our watchful eyes, protected from disappointment and failure and discomfort. And there are times when loving them unconditionally does in fact mean providing a certain amount of cover from things they just aren’t yet equipped to handle. That’s why we hold our toddlers’ hands when they cross the street.

But as our babies become toddlers, toddlers become children, and children become teenagers, the best thing we can do in support of our kids is to regularly let go of those hands so our kids can live, experience, and learn for themselves, not to put them in harm’s way, but to put them in life’s way. It’s not easy. It might not even feel like good parenting at the time. But it’s exactly what our kids need from us, whether they’re attending a day camp or completing a college application.

When we arrived back at the day camp at 5 p.m., our boy ran across the playground to greet us, full of stories of snacks and naps and everything else he’d just experienced.

I told him it sounded like he’d had a good day. And he replied, “Yeah. It was a big day!”

We’ve got to let them have their big days, even if those are some of the hardest days for us.

Would you make the list?

Seth Godin’s been hosting some interesting videos on Facebook Live (all archived here), one of which included an exercise about how to stand out.

You’re sitting at a table with 12 people who are part of a cohort and everyone is asked to take out a piece of paper. You’re each now given the opportunity to write down the names of three people who will join you on a team, one that will be given the most exciting projects to work on, along with all the associated privileges and benefits if you succeed together.

Of the other 12 people at the table, how many do you think would instantly decide to write down your name?

There are two points to the exercise:

1. If you come to work or to school and consistently are the person everybody would put down on their piece of paper, you will be making an impact. You’ll be standing out. You’ll be the indispensable person they would miss if you were gone. And those people are always in high demand. Your future (and your present) is bright.

2. Whether or not you are that person is a choice you get to make. It’s not about competition. It’s not about being granted authority. It’s about making the decision that you will consistently be a generous, reliable, positive leader that people want to work with because of what you do every day.

Are you that person? In your English class, in the drama club, on the hockey team?

Are you that counselor in your office, that teacher in your department, that administrator at your school?

Are you that coworker, that parent, that volunteer?

Wherever you’re working today, if they sat the group at the table and did this exercise, would you make the list?

And if not, here are two past posts with some suggestions to help you make the next round.

Five people you want to work with

How to be a leader without a leadership position

“No” today vs. “No” forever

The summer before my senior year of college, I was one of five students hired to run the summer orientation programs for incoming freshmen. Part of that job involved interviewing more than 350 applicants to fill fewer than 100 positions as summer volunteers to help run the program. That meant saying no to more than twice the number of people we would say yes to.

Each of us started by dividing the applications from those we’d personally interviewed into three piles—clear yes’s, clear no’s, and those who needed further discussion.

Between the five of us, our clear yes piles totaled 170 people. Almost twice the number we had space for.

We wouldn’t even have the chance to debate those who we thought needed further discussion. We had to debate which 70 of those clear yes’s—all great candidates who made overwhelmingly positive impressions on those of us who’d interviewed them—would be turned away.

We sat together on a Saturday and made impassioned cases for our own picks before putting each individual decision to a group vote. Seven hours later, we had our hundred picks. 100 great candidates were in, but 70 people who clearly deserved to be there were out.

And two days later, all of the applicants received their decisions.

Those 70 great people we turned away did absolutely nothing wrong. They were exactly the kinds of students who could make great contributions to our staff and to our program’s mission. Many of them were our friends. A few had applied specifically because we encouraged them to. And now we had to face them on campus, knowing they had every right to feel a little hurt and confused as to why they weren’t hired.

I loved being a summer orientation coordinator. But I hated the next few weeks of disappointed faces and incredulous inquiries about why we said no.

If you plan on applying to highly selective colleges that turn away far more applicants than they admit, the selection process will look a lot like what we faced hiring our staff all those summers ago.

You might have done everything expected of you in high school. You might have taken the most challenging classes, earned top grades and test scores, and thrived in your activities. You might have glowing letters of recommendation from teachers and counselors. You may even have been encouraged to apply by your counselor or an admissions representative that you’ve had the chance to communicate with.

But eventually, the mathematical reality will set in. What makes a college highly selective is that there are far too many applicants who deserve to be admitted, and not nearly enough spaces to accommodate them. Every admissions officer I’ve ever met who worked at one of those schools remembers just how much it hurt to argue passionately in favor of an applicant who so clearly belonged there, only to be voted down by the committee. Knowing that a student who deserved to be admitted would soon be receiving a denial is a reality in that world, but it never gets any easier for the people making the decisions, not to mention for the applicants who receive the bad news.

Rather than try to worry your way to a decision that you can influence but never actually control, you can respond to this reality in a healthy way.

First, please accept the fact that no matter how much you’ve achieved in high school, you simply cannot apply to a list comprised only of schools who turn away the majority of their applicants. You deserve better than to cross your fingers and hope to beat the odds. You deserve to have many great colleges from which to choose. If you’ve done the work and you’re willing to broaden your definition of a great college beyond those that reside at the top of the arbitrary rankings list, there are plenty of them out there that will practically trip over themselves to admit you.

Second, you can come to terms with the fact that admissions at highly selective colleges is not a meritocracy where the highest numbers always win. The math simply doesn’t allow it. All you can do is put your best application foot forward, trust that admissions committees do their best to be fair and thorough (they really do), and remember that even if things don’t go your way, it doesn’t necessarily mean you weren’t qualified. It likely means that there just weren’t enough spaces to go around.

Finally, and most importantly, you can remind yourself that your track record of great work will always be appreciated and rewarded somewhere, no matter what any individual college’s decision may be.

None of those 70 people we turned away had any long-term damage done. Some may have been temporarily stung by the decision, but they were too smart, too successful, and too driven to let one no deter them. They all bounced back and found other organizations where they could put their talents to use. After a month or so had passed, they’d moved on. And we no longer had to dread running into people we’d disappointed.

A no today doesn’t mean no forever.

Five college admissions regrets (and how to avoid them)

Many families who’ve been through the college admissions process look back on that time with regrets. But their hindsight can be your foresight if you’re willing to learn from their experiences. Here are five of the most common college admissions regrets and how to avoid them.

1. Failing to seek the right advice
You can avoid almost all common college admissions regrets by seeking the right advice, which always starts by visiting your high school counselor, ideally well before you begin completing applications. The right advice almost never comes from people who don’t know what they’re talking about or who don’t have any skin in the game. Seek out the advice and don’t wait to do it.

2. Not applying for financial aid
There are a lot of reasons families make this mistake, ranging from simply not realizing when the necessary applications are due, to making erroneous assumptions about their eligibility for aid, to misbelieving that simply applying for aid could hurt their student’s chances of admission. This is an easy regret to avoid—just apply for aid. Don’t make excuses, don’t put it off, don’t resolve to worry about how to pay for college later. Just visit the financial aid section of each of your chosen colleges’ websites and follow the instructions to apply for need-based aid. Here’s a past post for senior families concerned about costs, and another that broadens the advice to all grades of high school.

3. Cutting deadlines too close
Every year, countless families lament how stressful the process was simply because their student was frantically completing applications and essays right up until the deadlines. Impending deadlines heighten stress, they make it more difficult for students to relax and focus on the task at hand, and they’re a primary cause of parent/student head-butting (see #5). Instead, start before you have to. Work steadily. Then finish early. I promise you won’t regret it.

4. Applying to too many reach schools
Reach schools are those where your chances of being denied are greater than your chances of being admitted. Some students believe that the best way to improve their student’s chances is to apply to as many of those reaches as possible. But that lottery logic doesn’t work, it increases stress, and inevitably leads to a student receiving far more bad news than good. Even the dean of admission at Harvard believes that approach is a bad idea. A better approach? Balance your college list.

5. Parent/student head-butting
I know that parent and teenage head-butting isn’t limited to college applications. But the college version is easier to avoid. Families can start by agreeing to let the student drive the bus. Students, if you want your parents to step back and let you handle it on your own, remember that trust begets more trust. And parents, here’s a past post with five links to help you do your most important jobs well during this time.

Five tips to help you manage change

If you’ve ever had to deliver news to a group about a coming change, you know how much potential there is for people to be skeptical or even outright unhappy. Maybe you work for a school that’s instituting a potentially unpopular policy change. Maybe you’re a student leader who has to tell your constituents that the prom or fundraiser or annual performance won’t be the same as it’s always been. Maybe you’re a parent who has to tell your kids that your family’s financial situation—and in turn, their college options—has changed. Even a change that is inherently good can be jarring and uncomfortable when it arrives unexpectedly, is communicated poorly, or is just flat-out handled badly. But if you take the time to clearly and thoughtfully explain what’s coming, if you give people time to get comfortable with it, if you allow them to be heard when they have feedback or concerns, most people will at the very least accept—and at the very most join you as an eager advocate for—the change.

Here are five tips to give you the best chance of a good outcome.

1. AEAP (As Early as Possible)
The best time to tell somebody about a change is before it happens. “This is coming” is easier to adjust to than “This is here.” If the change didn’t sneak up on you unannounced, share it with your people as early as you feel is appropriate. Don’t keep something secret unless there’s a good reason for it. People will feel valued and respected when they’re invited to hear the news early, even if the change you’re sharing isn’t a sure thing yet. It will give them time to get comfortable with what could be—or what is—coming. And they might even be able to help you make the change.

2. Control your own story.
When you’re intentional and specific about who is sharing the news, as well as when and with whom they’re sharing it, you control your story. But when it leaks out and spreads via hearsay, you’ve given up control. Gossip is born from uncertainty. And even the most well-intentioned third-party story-spreaders will inevitably leave out facts, create confusion, and lead to a feeling that something secretive is happening that is cause for concern. One way to control your story is to keep it a secret. A better way is to release it in a smart, organized way that assures everyone that they’re in the company loop.

3. Honesty beats spin.
It’s tempting to couch a change you’re sold on in only the best terms, or even to leave out any details that detract from it. But the more honest you are about the impending change, the more trust and support you can expect in return. People know when they’re being sold to, and spinning the story will only make them more suspicious and anxious. Share the good parts, but don’t exaggerate the potential benefits.

It’s also helpful to be honest about the aspects of the change that aren’t necessarily all positive. Are there risks? Uncertainties? A chance it might not work? Bring up the (potentially) bad after the good. Your people will appreciate the story without the spin.

4. Don’t fake democracy.
It’s great to ask for early feedback and to listen to what people tell you. But don’t do it under the pretense of giving them a vote if the decision has already been made. “We’re considering doing this—what do you think?” is very different from “We’re doing this—what do you think?” Be clear which one it is. And don’t give them the illusion of a vote if they won’t be invited to cast one.

5. Specific questions earn specific feedback.
A general question like “What do you think?” will often lead to a general response. But specific questions like “How do you think this might help solve our problem?” or “Do you think we’re overlooking anything important?” or “What are two things we could do that would make you more comfortable with this change?” will lead to more specific and more helpful feedback. And always end with, “What did I miss?” An open question at the end of a specific exchange is often when people bring up the topic that to them is the heart of the matter. But start with specific questions if you want to get the most helpful feedback.

There’s also a point at which you can spend too much time planning and crafting and managing your change, and not enough time just getting on with it. Overthinking your change management is almost as bad as underthinking it. When in doubt, keep it simple. Tell people as early as you can. Be honest with them about what’s happening and why. Treat them like trustworthy adults who deserve to know what’s really happening rather than being kept in the dark and then given a sales pitch. Your change management might not be perfect. But getting the basics right will mean that both the system and the people will be forgiving of any minor change management mistakes along the way.

What’s happening with class rank?

As I’ve written before, the class rank debate rankles a lot of high-achieving students and their parents. Whether or not a school assigns a numerical ranking to each of its graduating seniors is a decision that almost always leaves some high-achieving segment feeling as if they’re now at an admissions disadvantage, no matter how often self-purported experts like me or even the colleges themselves reassure them otherwise.

My advice regarding class rank remains the same: (1) what your school does around this issue is not in your control, and (2) reassign that mental energy to things that are in your control. That’s where you can make the most impact.

According to this Washington Post piece by the venerable Jay Matthews, “A 1993 survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that only 7 percent of high schools had abolished class ranking. Seventeen years later, however, that figure had climbed to 50 percent.” That, and several other surveys cited in the piece, show that high schools are divided roughly equally on how they treat both class rankings and the idea of awarding a single valedictorian.

So, whatever decision your school makes with class rank, remember that roughly half the high schools in the country are doing the same thing. And that wouldn’t be the case if their highest achievers were left at an admissions disadvantage because of it.