Lack of effort vs. lack of fear

As often as I write here about the potential value of failure as both a life teacher and even a college admissions advantage, it’s one of those concepts that many families are uncomfortable embracing. I don’t blame them. They get so many messages about the need for college applicants to be perfect (they don’t need to be, but that’s often the message), it feels risky to do anything where they might feel like they could fail, and riskier still to actually admit or borderline celebrate that failure within a college essay or an application.

But this recent New York Times piece, On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus, shares how many colleges, including some that are quite selective, are going as far as to teach the value of failure. Even the skeptics might be interested to read the examples of kids so used to perfection that they can’t even handle not getting the room assignment they wanted, much less failing a test. Full disclosure, the author is a friend of mine, but I would have shared this even without that association.

I don’t see the concept of colleges acknowledging–and even teaching–failure as much of a stretch. Colleges want students who will not only work hard, but also avail themselves of the nearly limitless options for learning, growth, challenge, etc. during their four years on campus. Schools need students who are fearless in those pursuits, who accept that aiming high comes with the risk that you might fall short, who will not only resist the urge to crumble when something doesn’t go as they’d hoped, but also learn from those experiences and come back even more prepared the next time.

It’s those students, not those who huddle close to their comfort zones where success is more assured, who are most successful during and after college.

Failure due to lack of effort is one thing. Failure due to lack of fear is an entirely different—and more admirable—one.

Negative college admissions influences

Negativity has a tendency to seep unnecessarily into all aspects of the college admissions process. Some parents respond by not just soaking it in, but also spraying it back out to people around them. They contribute to the escalating arms race-like nature of the process by talking about how difficult it is to get into what they think are the best schools, by comparing the accomplishments of their kids to others, and by generally refusing to find or even acknowledge the joy that can be found in this process. And as I shared back in January, science has shown that negativity can spread like secondhand smoke.

If your college admissions process—or any aspect of your work or personal life–is being tainted by someone else’s negativity, here’s an article that gives you some mechanisms to defend yourself. Coincidentally, the expert I’m referencing today and the one in that past January post are husband and wife. I can only imagine how positive their household must be.

Make the choice

I can imagine Seth Godin’s recent recommendation to make two lists being met with eye rolling from many teens, and from many parents, for that matter. But whether or not you take his recommendation to tape one list to your bathroom mirror and to read it every day, the overarching message is a crucial one, especially for families going through the college admissions process—you get to choose what you focus on.

Do you want to focus on all the bad news, all the bad breaks, all your weaknesses, all the places you fell short, and all the ways the system seems rigged against you? That’s what these families did, and it not only did nothing to improve their students’ chances of admission, but also ruined what otherwise could have been a positive experience of finding and applying to college.

Or do you want to focus on the good news, the lucky breaks, the things you’re good at, the teachers you enjoy, the activities that make you happy, and most importantly, on the fact that you live in a country with the most open and accessible system of higher education in the world, billions of dollars available in financial aid and scholarships, and an open invitation to find those that fit you best?

Whether or not you make two lists, you get to make the choice. And there’s nothing preventing you from making this one.

Worrying is not a strategy

In the 18 years I’ve been at Collegewise, I can’t recall an instance where a student (or that student’s parents) worried their way to the admissions decision they wanted.

I’ve seen them worry about whether or not they had enough community service hours and how their school’s class ranking system might hurt them.

I’ve seen them worry that they would have earned better grades had they not attended such a rigorous high school. The fact that their test scores don’t break 1400, or that they don’t have a personal connection who can leverage influence, or that their school doesn’t offer AP English for seniors—they worried and wondered how these outcomes would negatively affect them.

Missing the cut for AP Chem, choosing to take a summer job rather than attend summer school, comparing themselves and their achievements to those of their peers–they’ve all led to the application anxiety and worried expressions so many families bring with them to their meetings with counselors.

But in all that time, I’ve never seen that worry make a positive impact. It doesn’t improve their admissions chances. It doesn’t leave them feeling more confident or more in control. It doesn’t motivate them or improve their decision making—in fact, it just leaves them worse off. They’re wound up so tightly with worry that they can’t relax and see their way to focusing on the other parts of the process that they can control.

Treating your college process with the respect that it deserves will get you closer to where you want to go. But worrying? All that does is take your focus off the very things that can change your outcome. It also makes for a miserable ride along the way.

There’s no magic formula to getting into college. But the magic formula for improving any process is to ditch the parts that don’t work, or even worse, do harm. Worrying doesn’t work in college admissions. Worry actually does harm. And that’s why worrying just isn’t a good strategy.

The science behind an effective pep talk

Do you ever find yourself in the position of having to give a pep talk?

Maybe you’re a counselor who needs to light an application fire under your seniors. Maybe you’re a team captain who needs to get your teammates committed to the summer workout schedule you’re proposing. Maybe you’re a parent who’s trying to rally your fellow parents to get more involved in your PTA.

Whatever your role or the group you need to pep up, it turns out there’s actually some science behind the most effective way to rally your troops. As shared in “The Science of Pep Talks,” there are key elements behind an effective pep talk.

1. Offer clear direction. People will be a lot more likely to take the actions you hope they’ll take when you give them clear definitions of what needs to be done, easily understandable instructions, and details about just what success looks like.

2. Express empathy. Many of us have sat through a failed pep talk where the person trying to motivate us seemed more concerned with the outcome than with the people expected to produce it. But a pep-talker who shows concern for the audience as human beings, who offers an acknowledgement of just how difficult the task is, sincere praise, gratitude, etc.—is more likely to connect with her audience and inspire them to take action.

3. Help people make meaning. Don’t just explain the task; explain why the task is important. Connect the mission to the listener’s goals. Tell stories about people who’ve succeeded in this role, or about the difference that the organization has made for its constituents.

It’s the difference between:

“If you start early on your applications and your essays, you can finish early and enjoy a real holiday break…”


“Last year, 40 of my seniors were sitting right where you’re sitting. They had all their applications and essays in front of them. They were nervous and maybe even a little overwhelmed by how much work they had to do. But they started early, they did a little bit each week, and they just made steady progress without ever pulling a frantic application all-nighter. By Thanksgiving, they’d submitted everything and were done with their college applications. In fact, many of them had already been admitted to colleges. And most of their friends hadn’t even started yet.”

The article explains how the best pep-talkers adapt the formula depending on the group and the task at hand, but the approach remains the same: offer clear direction, express empathy, and make meaning.

Sharing weaknesses accentuates strengths

Seniors moving into the application process will soon be besieged with messaging and advice around highlighting their strengths, standing out, and packaging themselves to supposedly resonate with their prospective colleges. But the best way to present yourself is to do so honestly. Yes, that means bringing your accomplishments and strengths front and center. Explain them clearly and proudly. This is no time to be bashful.

But if you really want to stand out, don’t be afraid to be honest about your weaknesses, too.

Here’s a past post on the power of self-deprecation. And another with the best way to handle an interview question or essay prompt that asks you about a weakness. Finally, here’s a snippet from a former dean of admissions at Princeton who appreciated some good self-deprecation in an application.

It turns out that the willingness to admit a fault or weakness isn’t just an effective selling technique in college admissions. In his book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, author Dan Pink shares the “blemish effect” where research showed that “…adding a minor negative detail in an otherwise positive description of a target can give that description a more positive impact.”

And seven years ago, Domino’s Pizza ran a national ad campaign admitting that their pizza was terrible. According to CEO Patrick Doyle, “We went on air on a Monday, and by Wednesday, our sales were up double digit. And we hadn’t even told them how we’d fixed it.”

The company’s stock has since outperformed Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Tips on how to stop hovering

Some ideas spread far and wide quickly, then seem to fizzle just as fast. In 2009, one book ignited the barefoot running craze. In just a few months, runners everywhere were going natural or tiptoeing along in form fitting, paper thin shoes that looked like a cross between scuba gear and rubber gloves for your feet. And within just a few years, while the lessons covered in the book might still have had legs, the accompanying barefoot mania had passed. Barefoot running might have its merit, but in practice, it was largely a passing fad.

On the other hand, Julie Lythcott-Haims’s book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, has been enjoying a different arc. Her message has been spreading slowly and deliberately since the book’s release two years ago. Parents, counselors, and administrators have been passing along their copies, inviting her to speak on their campuses, and urging parents in their own circles to take and follow Julie’s advice. Today, Lythcott-Haims is on a regular speaking circuit. And the press is giving her supportive messages a nice lift. Here’s a summary of the tips she shared during a recent radio interview (the link to the audio of the interview is at the bottom of the article).

Her book might have taken a while to take off. But I’m really hoping its slow and steady burn is a sign people see her approach as one worth keeping, rather than just a passing fad that will eventually run its course.

Expressions of appreciation

Last October, I invited counselors, teachers, students, and parents to take a page from what had become a viral, press-garnering video of Oak Park High School’s Positivity Project, where each teacher identified one student who inspired them and made them want to come to work every day. Cathy, a counselor at Hastings High School in Hastings, Michigan, took me up on it. She brought the idea to their student counsel, who took ownership of the project and garnered overwhelming support from the faculty to do so. But they also added a great twist—they not only invited teachers to present to students, but also students to teachers, and students to each other.

I’m not sharing their video here, because those expressions of appreciation weren’t necessarily meant for public viewing. But the results are just as heartwarming as those in Oak Park High School’s video. Both teachers and students appear so happy and grateful to receive their acknowledgements. It’s such a simple gesture to thank someone, to tell them you appreciate who they are and what they do. It takes less than 30 seconds. But the lift that expression gives someone goes far past the brief interaction.

The videos are great because they allow those expressions to live on. But counselors, teachers, students, and parents, remember that you don’t need to make a video to tell someone how and why you appreciate them. The absence of a camera won’t detract from the impact of the sentiment.

Thank you, Oak Park High School, for initiating such a wonderful project. Thank you, Cathy and the Hastings students, for taking the time to do this for your own community. And thank you to those of you who show up here regularly to read my blog. I appreciate you. You’re the reason I keep writing every day.

Enjoy the off-season

At Collegewise, our students work on applications and essays during the summer before their senior year. We’ve found that it’s a lot less stressful for students than trying to fit that work in around their academic and activity commitments during the fall. Those applying to rolling admissions schools can actually start their senior year with a few college acceptances in hand. And that work during the summer is one of the reasons most of our students are able to submit all their applications by Thanksgiving. Working now leads to relaxation later.

But we still encourage them to enjoy the off-season.

Parents, as your students finish their school year and head into the summer, please take stock of just how hard they’ve been working, how many late nights they’ve been spending, and how few days off they’ve been enjoying since September. It might not be a concern if your student hasn’t exactly been stressing out or burning the midnight study oil. But if your son or daughter has been keeping hours that look less like those of a junior in high school and more like those of a junior associate at a law firm, it’s unreasonable to expect them to sustain their effort and their sanity without a break (even those junior associates still take the occasional vacation).

Summer should be productive and fun for kids. Whether they’re working a job, taking classes, attending a summer program, etc., please encourage and allow them to balance those productive pursuits with rest, relaxation, and just plain teenage fun with their friends. Their minds, bodies, and applications will be stronger if you allow them to enjoy the off-season.

On your permanent record

As first reported in The Harvard Crimson and later covered in national news, at least ten incoming Harvard freshmen had their offers of admission revoked this week after they posted offensive memes and messages in a private Facebook group chat. Not surprisingly, it’s generated a lot of discussion amongst counselors, ranging from expressions of relief that those kids won’t end up in the dorms this fall to reminders that colleges do care what kids post on social media. For student readers of this blog, I hope you’ll take this story as a potent illustration of the power, and the staying power, of the internet.

For better or worse, you can’t be punished for having immature, uninformed, or even downright ugly thoughts. But once you put those thoughts on the internet, even in a private group, you’re signing your name to them. And if those words are shared, it will not be treated differently than if you’d stood up in front of your school and said the words, or worn a sweatshirt emblazoned with those words. And if it goes viral, as it did in this case, you might as well have just said those words on the news. Once it’s put in writing and shared publicly, it all becomes part of your online permanent record. At that point, whatever your original intent was in sharing them won’t matter.

This might sound like I’m overly dramatizing the risks of posting online, but I think this recent incident at Harvard shows otherwise. It doesn’t matter if what those students shared were deeply held beliefs or fleeting, flippant thoughts (either of which they’d likely have the opportunity to explore and reconsider once they got to college). They got accepted to Harvard, they shared offensive postings online, and now they’re out.

The internet gives a voice and a platform to anyone who wants it. Use that opportunity to share things you’re willing to stand by as part of your online permanent record, because that’s exactly what they just might become.