When a (low) GPA doesn’t predict future success

32-year-old Ezra Klein is the editor-in-chief of Vox, a news organization featuring articles, videos, newsletters, and podcasts that combine to reach over 100 million people each month. He was also a columnist at The Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC, and a contributor to Bloomberg. And he was named one of the 50 most powerful people in Washington by GQ.

But as he revealed recently on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, in 2002, Klein was just a kid graduating from high school with a 2.2 GPA and no real idea what he wanted to do with his life.

Klein doesn’t necessarily credit his college with his turnaround that led to such remarkable success. But he is an example of several themes I write about often here:

  • The traditional measures of success in high school did not accurately reflect his capabilities. In fact, he talks about how liberating it was to finally find areas where his strengths could be put to use.
  • He had the curiosity and initiative to pursue what he eventually discovered interested him.
  • He made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves.
  • He bounced back from failures and, in fact, today says, “The things that I wanted and didn’t get are extreme blessings.”

This podcast discussion actually had little to do with politics and far more to do with the path of Klein’s success, where he came from, how he took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, how he bounced back from failure, and who helped him along the way.

Ferriss does start the podcast with three minutes of self-promotion and sponsor pitching, which seems excessive to me. But if you’d like to hear from an honest, open, successful person who wasn’t at the top of his high school class but had a lot to offer and found a way to do so, the interview, which you can find here, is well worth a listen.

It’s not that high school classes and grades aren’t important. In fact, a student who blows off academics as unimportant is eliminating both options and opportunities. That’s a risky strategy, and not one that I’d recommend.

But Klein’s interview is a nice reminder that regardless of your GPA, who you are in high school is not necessarily a mold for who you’ll be or what you’ll become in the future.

Decisions, decisions

If you ask someone on a date and they decline, does that necessarily mean that you couldn’t have been good together? Does it mean that you have nothing to offer or that you just aren’t datable at all? No. It just means that based on the limited information on hand and the imperfect art of dating decisions, they didn’t see the fit that you saw. A confident person has to move on and embrace that clichéd but ultimately true saying that there are plenty of fish in the sea. And being a good, interesting, compelling person just increases the chances of getting a bite later.

What about the working professional who interviews for a position at a different company but doesn’t get the gig? Does that mean they weren’t qualified? Does it mean that if given a chance, they never could have done the job, maybe even as well as or better than the person who got picked? Does it mean they can’t be successful somewhere else? Of course not. Cover letters and resumes and job interviews have their limitations. Unless the company had a trial period where job-seekers could actually try the role for 3-6 months, there’s no way for a person in charge to know with absolute certainty who the right—or wrong—person is. It’s not a perfect system. And the smart, hard-working, accomplished professional has reason to keep the faith that they’ll end up at a place that’s right for them.

College admissions works the same way.

Colleges that require nothing more than transcripts and test scores are close to a meritocracy where the highest numbers win. But all those other schools that look at some combination of other things like activities, awards and honors, essays, letters of rec, or interviews are making more complex decisions. And especially at those schools that have to turn away many more applicants than they accept, deciding who gets a yes and who gets a no is difficult.

Some families think it’s random—a crapshoot at best. It’s not. In fact, admissions officers work very hard to fairly and thoroughly evaluate every applicant. But it’s a complex and sometimes imperfect process. Like dating and job-hunting, decisions that sting can be hard to take. They can feel bitterly personal. But the confident student has to believe enough in herself to know that a denial from one school is not an indictment of her accomplishments, a statement about her potential, or an indicator that she won’t be successful someplace else.

Students who are applying to college, I know it can feel intimidating and even unfair to package up your high school life into applications that could never fully encapsulate you, then leave the decisions of where you get in and don’t to people who have never met you and could never possibly understand everything about what you have to offer.

But you should keep the faith in two things.

First, remember that most admissions officers are, by nature, good people who work very hard to treat applicants with respect. They would much rather admit than deny you. And even when their realities dictate that they have to turn away students who are qualified and could absolutely do the work, they’ll make every effort to give you a fair and thorough read before they reach a decision.

And more importantly, remember that like dating, job searching, and other scenarios where other people make choices about you, they only get to control this one decision. They don’t get to control what you do next, where you do it, or whom you do it with.

Those decisions are the important ones. And those decisions are all yours.

Five unconventional ways to stand out

It’s hard to stand out in any arena doing the same things everyone else is doing. Here are five underutilized ways of standing out to colleges.

1. Learn something.
Learning isn’t limited to your school, or to academic material. Colleges, extension programs, and community centers offer classes in everything from scrapbooking to hip-hop. Books, videos, blogs—there are more places than ever before to learn whatever interests you, often on the cheap and even for free. Actively exploring—and expanding—your interests is a great way to show colleges that you love to learn and can take advantage of opportunities to do so.

2. Teach something.
Everyone is good at something that’s teachable. And like the opportunities to learn, the subjects to teach and the vehicles to do so are more varied than ever before. Offer up your particular expertise at a local community center. Create the go-to YouTube channel for people looking to learn to jazz trumpet. Write a blog on how to build websites, where to find good live bands in town, or how teens can conquer anxiety without prescription drugs. The reach of the internet means that your audience isn’t limited to your geographical location. And if you can really teach someone how to do something, chances are that someone out there in the world will find and appreciate it.

3. Share something.
Offer your basketball skills as a coach for a local youth team. Make videos for a local non-profit. One former Collegewise student who spent her Saturdays volunteering at a homeless shelter also loved photography. During her breaks, she offered to take photos of any families who wanted them, then developed and shared them with the subjects. Many of those families mentioned to her that her photos were the only family photos they owned. If you need a little more inspiration, check out how entrepreneur Derek Sivers shared his way to success using what he called the co-op business model.

4. Change something.
Does something in your club, school, or community need changing, fixing, improving? What if you did the work to make it happen? A small project might be done on your own. But a larger project might require that you recruit and lead other people who agree with you. Whether you pick up trash at the local park, paint the walls at your school, or start an informal support group for students who share the same struggle, colleges—and the world in general—are always looking for people who can make positive change happen.

5. Do something.
Have an idea that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the above categories? Go for it. Ideas are easy. And they’re just a starting point. It’s the doing that’s the hard part. Yes, planning can be important. And the more people you involve, the more important it will be to make promises you can keep. But working like crazy to do something worth doing will always earn you more credit, whether or not it actually works, than not doing anything at all. Find a way to move that idea from something you’re thinking about to something you actually do.

Wait for the end

Imagine watching 90 minutes of a dramatic movie and then walking out before finding out what happened to all the main characters.

Or reading all but the last two chapters of a mystery novel and never finding out who did it.

Would your descriptions of those tales be accurate if you didn’t know the end?

You’d talk about all the drama, angst, and mystery that built up throughout the scenes and chapters. But without the end, you’d have all the build-up and tension without resolution.

For many high school underclassmen and their families, the current seniors’ college admissions process is like a long story where you miss the end.

Who got in where, who’s going to a dream college, who was shaken by their denials—those might seem like the finale. But the admissions decisions are not the end of the story. And if you take them that way, your vision of the college admissions process will be one that’s foreboding, uncertain, and one that ends with either jubilation or heartbreak.

A year from now, those current seniors will all be returning from college for their holiday breaks. Some who went to dream colleges will have found parts of their schools that, like all schools, are not perfect. Some who attend schools that were once far down on their lists will wonder how they never realized what a great place their new home could be.

But the one commonality you’ll find is that the vast majority of them are happy where they go to college.

Sure, some will be more blissful and glowing than others. But once a student makes the transition and finds their place in college, they typically have trouble imagining themselves anyplace else.

If you want a sneak peek of the end, pay attention to those college freshmen who’ve returned to your hometown this month.

They’ll swap stories about roommates, professors, parties, football games, traditions, dorm food, majors, and everything else they’re experiencing as college freshmen. Notice not just how happy they are in college, but also how proud they are of their schools.

What they won’t be talking about: SAT scores, high school GPAs, college applications, essays, who got in where and why, and everything else that had to do with getting in. Those won’t just be earlier parts of their stories. Those parts will be ancient history.

And even if you don’t get that sneak peek, just remember that what you’re seeing now is the most dramatic part of the story. And remember that your own upcoming sequel will be a lot more appealing if you wait for the end of this one.

Do the right thing

One of the worst things a student can do when a college denial arrives is to minimize the accomplishment for those students who were accepted.

He only got in because his dad went there.

My ACT score was much higher than hers.

It’s because he applied as a botany major. I heard it’s much easier.

This is the wrong response for a few reasons.

You don’t know why someone was admitted or why you weren’t. Especially at the more selective schools that receive far more applications from qualified applicants than they can admit, admissions decisions are complex. They almost never boil down to something that’s easy to distinguish, especially for someone who wasn’t in the room when the decision was made.

And while I understand how unfair this can feel, I promise you that fixating on and griping about someone else’s admission will not make you feel better. In fact, it will almost certainly make you feel worse. Negativity just breeds more negativity.

So what should you do?

First, accept it. You can’t un-admit someone else and put yourself in their spot. The faster you come to terms with that truth, the more quickly you’ll be able to move on and fall in love with a college that said yes to you.

And second, offer your sincere congratulations. It takes a big person to do this. But if you can do it, it will speed your healing from the sting of denial. And you’ll feel good about yourself. A gesture like this is all about personal confidence. You’ll either be building it or demonstrating its presence. And either way, you emerge better for having done it.

It’s OK to be disappointed if that’s how you feel. But anger and resentment will only keep you feeling that way. Positivity and generosity will bring you back.

The decision may feel wrong. But you can still do what’s right.

It’s not about the total hours

I’ve met a lot of high school students who could benefit from embracing the message in this piece, The Outwork Myth. Just make sure that you understand the message before you take it to heart.

The message is not that hard work isn’t important or that people who become successful don’t get there without working hard.

The message is best captured in this paragraph:

“Hours are never the differentiator — it’s never about working more hours than someone else. It’s about the decisions you make. How you spend your time, what you do and don’t do. Especially what you don’t do. You’ll have more opportunities to waste time than use time. If you’re going to measure hours, the ones worth measuring are the ones you don’t waste, not the ones you spend.”

Here are some high school examples.

One student spends ten hours over a weekend studying for exams. But those ten hours also included constant interruptions to respond to text messages, answer phone calls, check social media, etc. Another student finds a quiet corner of her local library, turns her phone off, and spends the next three hours relentlessly focused—uninterrupted—on what’s she’s doing. She leaves completely prepared and free to get on with her weekend. The former student might claim that she worked harder—after all, she swore off the entire weekend! But the latter student spent less than half the time and left even more prepared. The total number of hours they spent doesn’t correlate with their results. What was far more important were the decisions they made about what to do—and what not to do—with that time.

A student who does a third or fourth round of test prep to eke out a few more points may have spent more hours preparing for standardized tests than many other applicants. But that decision comes at a price. What did she give up during that time? What else could she have been learning or impacting or leading during that time? Would those opportunities have made her happier, and more likely to be admitted to—and successful in—college?

Counselors also see the “hours spent” focus come up all too often with community service. Some students are entirely focused on accumulating as many total hours as possible. But those students who genuinely care about what they’re doing, who want to make a difference and actually help the people they’re volunteering to serve, they tend to be a lot less likely to lead with their total number of hours spent when you ask them to tell you about their volunteer work.

Yes, many colleges do ask students to list the number of hours per week and weeks per year that you spent engaging with each activity you list on an application. But it does not mean that the applicants with the highest totals for hours spent get an automatic admissions advantage. Colleges do this as one way to get a clearer picture of how you’ve spent your time, and more importantly, what you cared about most. They’ll also look to your descriptions of those activities, your honors and awards won, your essays, letters of recommendation, and interview to get a better sense of the impact that you made within these activities.

Total hours spent is just one measure of anything that you do. And it’s almost never the most important measure.

See past the decisions

This week, applicants began receiving their early application news from colleges they applied to. That means lots of jubilation, heartbreak, and in some cases, confusion over decisions that, to someone who wasn’t in the room when the decision was made, might not seem to make sense. Many of our Collegewise counselors reached out to their early applicants in advance to remind them that over the course of a student’s lifetime, the day this decision arrives will be just another day. We promised to be the first to celebrate good news or to shrug off bad news, reinforced that their work ethic and character are what will make them successful, and expressed our faith in them no matter which college they attend.

What was surprising and encouraging was just how well those messages were received.

Our words weren’t magic medicine that removed the stress entirely. But in almost every case, when the counselor reminded individual students of their particular strengths, when we encouraged them to think long-term rather than view this news as a defining moment, and most importantly, when we expressed our belief in them no matter which colleges say yes, the responses we got back were appreciative, with a sense that their spirits had been lifted and their outlook adjusted.

I mention this here to encourage parents and counselors to help students see past these decisions. Lead by example and by words. If the news isn’t good, don’t immediately begin strategizing or second-guessing. Don’t do an application autopsy in an attempt to locate what went wrong. Don’t obsess about who got in and why. That behavior just reinforces that this is a life-defining day when, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not.

Instead, remind them how much they have to offer and to look forward to wherever they go to college. Reaffirm your faith in them. And help them see past the decision today. What’s waiting tomorrow promises to be far more interesting.

Why not try it?

When I started Collegewise in 1999, my parents had just moved to Switzerland where my dad had taken a new job. Months earlier, I’d booked tickets to spend a week with them over the Christmas holiday. And while this is hard to imagine today, internet access wasn’t necessarily reliable or even available everywhere. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance, so I resolved to have my nine seniors done with their applications before the holiday break—theirs and mine. I wanted them to be completely wrapped up so that I could safely detach during the holiday without leaving anyone in the lurch.

There was no plan to necessarily continue this practice for the future. I had no idea what the future even looked like for Collegewise at that time. But I knew that if I were going to enjoy my holiday, I needed to get those nine seniors wrapped up.

It worked. And it still works for us today.

Over seventeen years later, while there may occasionally be a straggler here or there who needs to come back in January for a final review, just about all of our seniors head into the winter holiday with all their applications submitted. It’s one of the most compelling promises we make to families. And it’s one of the benefits they appreciate most about our program.

Imagine if we had never gotten into that habit. If we’d always worked with kids throughout the holidays (as much of our competition does), how might our leadership and our counselors respond if one of us proposed, “Let’s finish all of our seniors before the holiday break.”

As much initiative and gumption as we have, I imagine that most of us would be skeptical.

That will never work.

We have too many kids.

There’s too much work to do in too little time.

None of our competitors do this.

It’s overpromising something we can’t necessarily deliver.

It’s understandable why we’d feel that way, but we’d all be wrong. We’ve been proving it since 1999.

The next time someone in your club, part-time job, counseling department, or other organization proposes an idea that inspires a lot of naysaying, ask a few questions without judgment.

  1. Would it be worth doing if it did work?
  2. How can you know for sure that it won’t work?
  3. What is the smallest, most risk-free way you could try it?
  4. What’s the worst that would happen if it didn’t work (that’s why question #3 is so important)?

And if you can find satisfactory answers to those questions, you’re only left with one.

Why not try it?

Five holiday reads to reduce admissions stress

The best way to reduce college admissions stress over the holiday might be not to read (or talk) about it at all. But if you can’t quite turn off the college worries and just need some outside reminders that everything will be OK, here are five worthy holiday reads.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
Paul Tough

Tough argues convincingly that character traits (perseverance, curiosity, optimism, etc.) are much better predictors of success than test scores are.

Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes”
Madeline Levine, PhD

What should a good parent be doing? How do you judge your success? Levine lays out the research to show that the new parenting end-game of good grades, high test scores, and college acceptances is producing a generation of exhausted kids who define themselves by their last performance. But more importantly, she also gives parents the tools and the confidence to redefine success and raise mature, healthy, and yes, successful adults.

How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success
Julie Lythcott-Haims

A former dean at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims saw firsthand just how much damage overparenting does to kids, to parents, and to society. And as a mother herself, she somehow manages to show compassion and understanding for overparenters while remaining resolute in her argument that there has to be—and is—a better way.

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
Frank Bruni

Do you feel like the college admissions process is out of control with all the focus on tutors and test prep and who gets in where? Bruni agrees, and reminds readers that successful adults emerge from lots of colleges that aren’t prestigious, and that a high school student’s entire future isn’t decided by one grade, test score, or admissions decision.

The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living
Amit Sood, MD

The college admissions process doesn’t have the market cornered on stress. In fact, Dr. Amit Sood has spent his professional life studying the root causes of stress and shows readers not only why our brains are wired to search for what could go wrong, but also how to manage those worries and appreciate all the good that life serves up day to day. If you’re a parent who, in spite of your best efforts, can’t quite seem to stop worrying long enough to actually enjoy watching your student go through the college admissions process (believe me, it can be done), Sood’s book will give you the tools to get a lot closer to doing so.

Common sense never goes out of style

While waiting at the beginning of a five-hour window for a service tech to repair my washing machine, I answered a call from the repair company. A recording played confirming my appointment and said, “If you would like to track your technician and see the estimated time of arrival…”

I perked up. What a great idea! I’ll know when the tech is due to arrive and won’t have to sit around wondering.

Except what followed was an offer to visit a web URL that was—and I’m estimating here—at least 35 characters long, including several backslashes and one dash. This wasn’t a voicemail I could listen to again. This was a recording on a call that I’d answered, and there was no option to repeat the information. Even if I’d been prepared with a pen and paper at the ready, I’m not sure I could have scribbled furiously enough to capture the URL successfully.

Somebody in that company made the decision about what that outgoing recording would say. Does any rational person really think that a customer could successfully write that down, much less remember it? If not, or if they just didn’t care, why offer the option if all it’s going to do is frustrate people?

Whether you’re running a counseling business, working in a high school, creating (and evaluating) college applications, applying to the colleges of your dreams, or serving as the treasurer for the high school Latin Club, it’s hard to understate the value of just thinking things through. Does this action you’re about to take make sense? Would you appreciate it if you were on the receiving end? If not, what would you do differently?

The world might be an increasingly complex place, with information and technology progressing faster than at any time in our history. It’s hard to keep up, even for the savviest of us.

But just plain common sense never goes out of style.