If/then vs. now/then

Too many students make college-planning decisions using the if/then model.

If it will get me extra credit, I’ll participate in class.

If I get elected to a leadership position, I’ll take on more responsibility.

If it will help me get into an Ivy League school, I’ll perform some community service hours.

But the if/then approach leaves too many of your decisions to chance, circumstance, or the whims of other people. Wouldn’t you rather be in charge of yourself?

Instead of if/then, why not try now/then?

I’ll participate in class now; then the teacher will see how engaged I am.

I’ll take more responsibility now; then the club members will know that I’m someone who gets things done.

I’ll do community service and make a difference now; then I’ll be proud of my contributions when I apply to college.

When you take the “if” out and start now, you’re in charge. You get to create your own “then.”

It’s your time, after all. And while you should be deliberate about how you spend it, you’ll get a lot better results when you spend less time waiting for “if” and more time doing something now.

More on the class rank debate

The public school system in Spokane, Washington, recently announced that they will eliminate both class ranking and the valedictorian system from high schools. Walt Gardner, a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District and a lecturer at the UCLA Graduate School of Education, disagrees with the decision. And Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, disagrees with Walt.

Clearly, there are smart, informed people on both sides of the “Should high schools rank students?” debate. But that’s not the point of this entry.

Walt argues: “When students enter the workplace, they will be assessed in one way or another, whether they like it or not.”

Denise argues: “We [Challenge Success] have found that eliminating valedictorian status and class rankings has reduced stress at certain schools — especially those where achievement in the form of grades and test scores and college admission rates is valued above all other traits.”

But there is a way that students (and parents) can have the best of both the worlds that Walt and Denise describe. There is an approach that will allow you to learn from a system that assesses you whether you like it or not, but without causing undue stress. Here it is:

Accept your high school’s policy about class rank, whatever it is. Then get back to focusing on things that matter and that you can control, like your effort, goals, engagement, etc.

Decisions about school policies like class ranking should be made carefully. What works for one school or student population may not work for another, and there is certainly nothing wrong with communities of students and parents having their voices heard in those discussions.

But it’s important for students and parents to remember two things about class rank:

1. You almost certainly don’t get to control what your school decides to do with class ranks.
2. You will not meet an adult whose current levels of happiness and success are tied in any traceable way to whether or not their high school decided to assign them a numerical class ranking however many years ago.

I’ve written about the class rank debate before, and that past post includes a link to a good write-up on the University of Virginia’s blog. But the themes are always the same. The more time and energy you expend debating your school’s class ranking system, the more frustrated you’re likely to become. And the less time and energy you’ll have to invest in things that will make you both happy and successful.

Still spot-on today

There’s nothing particularly new or surprising in high school counselor extraordinaire Patrick O’Connor’s “The Ten Things We Learned this Application Season.” And that’s precisely why I’m sharing it here.

So much of the buzz, confusion, and anxiety surrounding college admissions comes from the sense that it’s an ever-changing process. Moving targets. Changing rules. One small mistake, missing piece of advice, or lacking kernel of information away from total admissions disaster.

Yes, some things do change, sometimes in a big way. The FAFSA had a new deadline this year. Individual colleges can change their requirements, filing deadlines, or application options. You can’t assume that everything your older brother or sister (or your older children) experienced will be exactly the same the second time around.

But the most important steps, the core tenets of college planning, don’t change. In fact, every single item on O’Connor’s list was true when I founded Collegewise nearly 18 years ago. And they’re still spot-on today.


The deep end of the waitlist discussion

Parke Muth is a former associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia and an independent college counselor. In his most recent blog post, he gives one of the frankest, most thorough discussions of the admissions waitlist—what it means, why colleges use them, and how to determine your odds of being moved to a yes.

This is not “Five Easy Tips to Improve your Odds of Being Taken off the Waitlist.” Muth wades into the deep end and actually explains both the reasoning and the numbers behind this policy that’s become so rampant at selective colleges.

I did particularly enjoy this advice, which echoes a lot of my own from past posts:

“To me, most students would be much better off taking the time to embrace the school they have paid a deposit to attend. Start wearing the school sweatshirt, start filling out all the stuff that the schools send, gets on the entering class Facebook page etc. Start imaging a great life ahead instead of focusing on what will likely not happen.”

Some of the statistics and harsh truths might be difficult for students stuck on a waitlist to read right now. But as much as it might give you some relief to be encouraged, I think it’s just as important to give you useful, honest information that can actually help you make good decisions (especially when the college that waitlisted you has only given you a “maybe”).

The training starts now

Parents of high school underclassmen, imagine if you spent the next year (or two years, or three years) feeding or even initiating your student’s desire to go to the senior prom with any member on the short list of the class’s most popular kids.

Maybe if we get you the right clothes, she’ll be more likely to say yes?

I heard he likes athletes, so you should definitely keep playing basketball.

I know some people who can introduce you to her parents. If you make a great impression, that should definitely help your chances. 

If the big senior prom match doesn’t come to fruition, your student will have a long way to bounce back.

Sure, you could say all the right things about it being their loss, there are plenty of fish in the sea, anyone who can’t see how special your student is doesn’t deserve to date them, etc. But you’ve also got a lot of history to unravel. All that time spent building up the supposed ideal choices will make it a lot harder to let those choices go when they’re no longer available.

This month, college admissions news is arriving for seniors. And while there will be lots of celebrating, there will also be plenty of disappointment, even heartbreak. Every one of those students will bounce back eventually. But some will do so much faster than others. Those who embraced the idea that what a student does in college is more important than where they do it, who viewed the process as an exciting journey rather than an arms race, who are excited about all the learning, growth, and fun that will likely be found at any of the schools that ended up on their list, those are the families who will move past this bad news and quickly focus on the good.

But the families who spent much of their college search focusing only on a short list of famous colleges, who’ve built up the idea in their mind that an admission to one of those schools is the necessary validation for all their hard work, those are the students (and parents) who will have a longer period of admissions decision mourning.

Freshman, sophomore, and junior families, you’ll make the process a lot more enjoyable and successful, and you’ll be far more likely to push through any admissions disappointment quickly, if you lay the groundwork now. Find the enjoyment in the process. Look for the right schools, not just the famous ones. And reinforce that the opportunity to go to any college is just that, an opportunity. There is no such thing as an admissions decision that leaves a student ruined—or all set—for life.

Essays, applications, interviews–all of that can wait until later. But the attitude and approach to the process? That training starts now.

A different March Madness

The folks at Challenge Success just released their spring newsletter, which includes an archived piece, March Madness, from co-founder Madeline Levine about how to create a supportive environment for students who have received college rejections. And I particularly appreciated this advice:

“Instead of crying over rejections, we should be celebrating acceptances with our kids in March… The best guarantees of success for our children—not at the end of the grading period, not when they get into college—but twenty years down the line when they move into their adult lives, have to do with real involvement with learning (not just going through the motions,) a good emotional foundation and good values. Their college acceptances have nothing, or little, to do with your parenting. This is about your child. And they should feel good about moving towards one of the greatest transitions in their lives. Wherever your kid gets into college this month, go out and celebrate.”

Writing before meeting

If you’re an executive at Amazon and you want to pitch a new idea to your colleagues, you’ll have some writing—and they’ll have some reading—to do.

Here’s what often happens in your typical meeting. Someone has an idea, maybe one they haven’t taken all that much time to think through, and they share it with the group. Or they might bring a PowerPoint deck that includes bulleted facts to support their vision. Discussions, questions, objections, etc. ensue. But in the end, nobody feels ready to say yes to the idea. There are too many questions, too many unknowns, and not a clear enough picture of what the idea would actually look like in practice. And the only decision reached is to discuss the idea—again—at a future meeting.

Amazon avoids this version of new idea limbo with “narratives.”

Anyone with a new idea must first lay out their argument in a memo of no longer than six pages. It’s not just a description; they address the assertions, assumptions, benefits, risks, and suggested next steps. And the idea is not shared in advance—it’s shared at the beginning of the meeting. At the start of the meeting, everyone reads the memo and makes notes in the margins. When everyone is finished reading, they ask the writer questions for 30-45 minutes. And best of all, at the end of the meeting, a decision is reached—yes, no, or a next step like gathering missing information.

Here are the benefits to this approach:

1. It makes ideas stronger.

It’s harder to write a convincing argument than it is to float a half-formed idea in a meeting. That’s intentional. The narrative forces people to really think about their idea, to consider not just the potential benefits but also the risks and the reasons it might not work (because you know you’ll need to answer those questions). As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos describes it in this article:

“Full sentences are harder to write [than bullets in a PowerPoint presentation]… They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Most of us would not voluntarily listen to a presentation if the speaker told us, “I haven’t prepared exactly what I want to say today, so I’m just going to start talking and see where it goes.” So why should we allow it in a meeting? The narrative imposes discipline before discussion.

2. It respects colleagues’ time.
Too often, a group’s approach to getting things done is “Let’s have a meeting.” But time is a precious commodity. And group meetings—especially when they include meandering discussions about half-formed ideas that ultimately don’t lead to decisions—are often gigantic time-wasters. The narrative means that if you don’t feel ready to present your pitch in writing, if you’re not ready to defend it in front of the group, then you don’t call the meeting. You can use that time to prepare. And you’ve respected your colleagues’ time by letting them do their work in the meantime.

3. It leads to faster, better decisions.
How many meetings have you sat through that were all talk and no follow-up action? The point of discussing just about anything in a group meeting is to make a decision of some kind. Sometimes the decision is a no. But that’s still a decision, a much more definitive one than the standard, “Let’s continue this discussion next week (at which point many of us will simply repeat what we said this week).”

You don’t have to adopt Amazon’s narrative to make your meetings more productive. In fact, you could improve most meetings with just a few simple steps.

  • Remember that any meeting is taking time from all the participants. 5-10 people spending an hour together is actually 5-10 hours of time that could have been spent doing something else. If you’re going to have meetings, make your meetings count.
  • Don’t have standing meetings that happen whether or not there’s anything worth discussing. Have a meeting only when you need to have a meeting.
  • Are you meeting just to get a group update on what everyone has been doing? Why not have colleagues just write a paragraph or two (not an Amazon narrative-style argument, just a simple description) and share it ahead of time?
  • If you want to share an idea just to get feedback, share it with a few key people first. Get their thoughts, objections, and concerns. This is like doing a focus group. You’ll have a chance to refine your idea before you bring it to the meeting. In fact, you might be able to line those key people up as supporters before then.
  • Measure your meetings by the decisions made. If the only decision made is to have another meeting, that’s not a decision. Decisions are yes, no, or a specific step to gather whatever is preventing you from making the decision today.

The pre-judgment problem

Seth Godin’s recent post, “Our pre-judgment problem,” shares several examples of how people and organizations use the wrong metrics to judge people, including:

The SAT is a poor indicator of college performance, but most colleges use it anyway.

Famous colleges aren’t correlated with lifetime success or happiness, but we push our kids to seek them out.

The good news?

1. According to FairTest, “a record 900 accredited, bachelor-degree institutions say they will make decisions about all or many applicants without considering ACT or SAT test scores.”

2. Families can decide for themselves whether or not to push kids to seek out famous colleges.