Keeping the wrong scores

Keeping score has its place. Basketball games would be pretty confusing if nobody on the court or in the stands knew how many points were on the board. But too many students and their parents inject way too much scorekeeping into college admissions, often about all the wrong things.

They’ll measure and track every exam, graded paper, and standardized test, but forget to measure if the student is actually learning something.

They’ll keep a mental log of every perceived missed opportunity, every AP class they didn’t get or starting position they weren’t given or election they didn’t win, but take no reward in the effort that went into pursuing those things or the learning that followed.

They’ll track the competition, who got what score or what award or what notice of admission to which prestigious college, but forget to take the time to consider their own journey and whether or not their path is a healthy and rewarding one for them.

They’ll rack up items for the resume but forget about the value of time spent doing something the student enjoys.

And most troublingly, they’ll turn a student’s time in high school and preparation for college into an unending stream of performance measurement—grades, scores, accolades, etc.—at the expense of the student’s health and happiness.

Nobody does this because they set out to make themselves or their kids miserable. Scorekeeping like this is pervasive in many communities and schools because of the obsession with prestigious colleges and the belief that satisfying a magic formula can open the doors of admission.

If you’re keeping score, it’s worth considering:

  • Is the score something you can control or even influence?
  • Can you change the outcome once the score is final?
  • Does the score carry long-term consequences that will affect you 2 or 5 or 20 years from now?
  • Will the quest to score well make you or others around you smarter, healthier, or happier?
  • Are you focusing on the life, opportunities, and people around you no matter how or where you’re scoring?

If you answer no to those questions, it might be time to keep a different score.

Start where you’re already strong

Here’s a simple but effective way to improve yourself dramatically.

Change “What’s one thing I could do better?” to “What’s one thing I could do even better?”

A weakness that’s really holding you back from something important may need to be addressed. But strengths always improve more than weaknesses do.

If you’re looking to make big improvements, start where you’re already strong.

A new way to rank yourself

I loved Seth Godin’s post yesterday about a community ranking. I can’t think of a better goal for students (and parents, and counselors, and just about everyone else) to strive for. A community rank isn’t dependent on your intelligence, test-taking ability, official leadership position, or any other outside measurement or accolade. It’s entirely about your willingness to care and your initiate to act. And those traits are available to all of us no matter how we rank in the academic class.

For more on this, here’s a past post of mine on how to measure your impact.

Open arms and inboxes

A new study out of Virginia Tech brings scientific proof to what many people likely knew instinctively—the expectation of checking work email after hours is harmful to the health not just of the workers, but also their families. What’s particularly noteworthy is that the expectation alone creates those problems, independently of whether the employee engages in the actual work during off hours.

We recently completed an email experiment at Collegewise. Two of our most senior executives charged with running the business were out for ten days on vacation simultaneously. And every one of us—over 50 Collegewisers—agreed to not send either of them a single email.

No questions with the caveat, “Just in case you check email.” No copying either of them on emails just to make sure they were in the loop. No requests, even with the tagline, “This can wait until you get back.” Nothing at all, for ten days.

And here’s what happened—nothing.

No vacation-induced emergencies. No calamitous missteps. No grinding to a halt of the progress we make every day. Work life went on as it always has.

It’s not that they aren’t both vital to our business—they’re indispensable. We just don’t need to communicate with each other 24/7.

To be clear, I’m not living in their inboxes and it’s certainly possible that there were emails that slipped through. But this misguided notion that any of us are so necessary that we must be connected to everyone else at all times is misguided at best and narcissistic at worst. And I’ll lump high school students into that conclusion, too. Your friends don’t need to know what you’re doing or thinking or eating every five minutes, and you don’t need to be immersed in their lives, either.

Yes, I know there are people who live and work with the reality that if they don’t answer the call during off hours, someone might die. Those are the exceptions to the availability rule. But for most of us, the exceptions just don’t apply.

Constant availability is not a badge of honor representing your commitment. It’s a scarlet letter representing either an inflated sense of importance or a lack of trust. So turn off and tune out regularly. Be proudly unreachable. Fill the time with what’s in front of you when the screens are all shut down and put away.

The people and the emails will be waiting with open arms and inboxes when you get back. But until then, we’re happy to wait.

Who needs a career plan?

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, participated on a panel in front of college students and was asked, “What should my 5-10-year career plan look like?”

She responded that a student shouldn’t have a 5-10-year career plan, and relayed that if she had followed a set career plan, she never would have ended up in tech because Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers when she graduated from college.

What should college students do instead?

Choose a first job based on how much you can learn, or that allows you to work with people you can learn the most from. That’s your goal—to learn as much as possible. The learning is what will help you discover your path and open up doors for your future.

For high school students, that approach—making the choice based on where you’ll learn the most—might not be a bad way to choose classes, activities, and even colleges.

This entire podcast is worth a listen, but the portion about Sandberg begins at 18:40.

Questions to (repeatedly) ask colleges

This February 2017 post from the Georgia Tech admissions blog about potential questions for students to ask colleges does two things I haven’t seen done well (or even at all) before:

1. The questions seek information students might actually want to learn about.
2. They recommend students ask the questions more than once to different audiences (students, tour guides, professors, etc.).

Worthy goals

Students, you’ve still got some summer left to enjoy before you dive back into school. But if you’re starting to think about goals for this year, consider focusing less on measures of your performance, like “I want to get a 4.0 GPA,” and more on measures of your effort, behavior, health, or character. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Maximize an existing strength.
  • Initiate something that might not work.
  • Spend more time with the subject you enjoy the most.
  • Spend less time trying to fix your weaknesses.
  • Worry less about standardized tests.
  • Show your favorite teacher you care more about learning than you do your final grade.
  • Try something new that looks interesting.
  • Do things that make you feel happy, proud, and fulfilled.
  • Make an impact in something you care about.
  • Make good change happen for someone or something.
  • Have more fun.
  • Worry less about things you can’t control.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep every night.
  • Let yourself off the hook if your best effort doesn’t produce the desired result.
  • Channel efforts into areas you can control.
  • Care more about what the people who care about you think.
  • Care less about what the people who don’t care about you think.
  • Treat the college admissions process as one important step on a much more important life journey.
  • Find excitement in the potential to attend college at all.
  • Take more responsibility for things you can do yourself.

Five tips to presenting well online

For students applying to college—and even more so for adults navigating the professional world—interactions are increasingly taking place online. You might be interviewed over Skype. You might be asked to create a video to share more about yourself. You might participate in meetings or deliver a webinar or present your new proposal to a team. As our Collegewise counselors do more and more of our work online with families and teammates, we asked our filmmaker, Frank Martinez, to share some advice on how to look our best when presenting virtually. Here’s a summary of his five most important tips.

1. Get in the right position.
Start by getting your camera at eye level (there’s no reason to give people a direct view up your nostrils). Do this by stacking some books, shoeboxes, or other appropriate building blocks on which to perch your laptop. Then sit roughly arm’s length from the screen. When you’re the correct distance from the screen, there should be a little space between the top of your head and the top of the frame (Frank says this is called “headroom”).

2. Get your light right.
Natural light is best providing it comes from the right direction. If you have a window in the room, face it. But never sit with your back to a window. This will throw off the camera exposure and create a distracting contrast between the bright background and your comparatively dark shape. Avoid overhead lights if you can, especially those fluorescents so common in office buildings. Here’s a Frank trick: If it’s too dark and you have an external monitor, make the screen’s background solid white and put it behind your laptop. This will actually serve as a decent light.

3. Choose the right spot for your shot.
First, get someplace quiet (your mic will pick up everything from family members in the next room to construction taking place outside). Avoid rooms with wooden floors and lots of hard surfaces as your voice will sound thin or even have an echo. Opt for rooms with rugs, couches, drapes, etc. if available. Also, consider your background, especially if you’re making a first impression online. Your friends won’t care about a messy room behind you, but that’s not the impression you want to make during an interview.

4. Give your equipment a fighting chance.
It shouldn’t be necessary to purchase expensive equipment unless you’re doing a project (like a popular podcast) that needs to deliver professional quality. But if your computer’s webcam struggles repeatedly to stay focused, or the picture looks dim and fuzzy, and you’d like to upgrade, you can get a very good external webcam for around $50. Also, consider using headphones with a built-in microphone if you’re unable to get to a library-quiet spot. They’ll do a better job than your computer’s mic will of listening to you and ignoring much of the background noise.

5. Don’t ignore the basics.
Everything that would matter in an in-person meetup still matters online. Be prepared and on time. Don’t look like you just rolled out of bed. Be both engaged—don’t be distracted by your phone—and engaging. The computer doesn’t remove those basics for making a good impression. But the first four tips will prevent something extraneous—like a distracting background or bad lighting—from becoming the most memorable part of your online interaction.

You’re making an impression whether it’s online or in person. A little thought and planning can help you make a strong one.

Is it time to make a different choice?

The New York Times ran a story this week entitled “Considering College? Maybe You Should Invest in a Coach,” which elicited reactions ranging from eye-rolling to blood boiling among the Collegewise crew. I won’t share the link here because a story like this is part of the problem that so many of us at Collegewise and in the counseling community are fighting against. The piece isn’t “fake news” in that the sources and statistics are factually correct. But it’s exactly the kind of banal, uninformative story that speaks to the neuroses of a very small population of people and does not represent the broader college admissions landscape.

Here were the themes, all of which you’ve probably heard before in the press and in high school student and parent circles.

  • It’s impossible to get into a “good” college today.
  • Hard-working, perfect-on-paper kids are getting roundly rejected from their dream schools.
  • Even the highest-achieving kids are always just one unintentional, innocuous misstep away—like not maintaining enough eye contact during their college interview—from sinking their admissions ships at their top colleges.
  • Parents are spending lots of money to give their kids an advantage, and they’re doing so as early as infants preparing for pre-school (I swear I am not making this up).
  • The admissions sky is falling, the competition is intense, and your fear is well-founded.

In response to this quote from a coach profiled in the piece, “There are heartbreaking stories every year of a student with a near-perfect SAT score and perfect grades rejected from every Ivy,” Eric Hoover, a writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, tweeted, “If this is your definition of ‘heartbreaking,’ you live a charmed life.”

Bravo, Mr. Hoover.

Every person is entitled to their own worldview. Some people believe that the only restaurants worth visiting are those with Michelin star chefs and a six-month waiting list for a table. But those of us who are perfectly happy with our favorite family-owned restaurant down the street don’t read stories about star chefs and worry that our kids will be at a disadvantage if we don’t start feeding them duck a l’orange at age two. That’s what’s troubling about the press covering this particular college admissions worldview. It implies that the world they describe encapsulates the world of college admissions, which it most certainly does not.

I’ve long wished—and still hold out hope—that the press would cover other stories that represent the majority, not a tiny minority, of the college-going population. I’d love to read tales of earnest, nice kids who got into every school they applied to, none of which were on the US News Top 50, and who flourished during and after college. I’d love to read about the kids who never spent a dime on counseling or test prep or tutoring and happily marched off to their own colleges of choice that were happy to admit them just as they were. I’d love to read about the families who watched their kids grow and learn during college, who beamed with pride as their students walked across the stage at graduation, and continue to beam at their happy and successful kids-turned-adults today, all without ever losing sleep over one grade, test score, or admissions decision.

The press doesn’t write about them. But I promise you they are out there. In fact, there are exponentially more of those families than there are of the anxious, Ivy-League-or-bust families who will stop at nothing to beat the competition and the system.

Families, you get to make a choice about how you approach the process. So please choose. Which camp do you want to be in?

Do you want to buy into the hype that the only colleges worth attending are those who turn away nearly every applicant who applies? Do you want to send the message to your kids that unless they earn an acceptance to a school that almost nobody gets accepted to, they’ve somehow fallen short and are now at a significant life disadvantage?

Or do you want to look around in society and acknowledge that happy and successful adults, from senators to software engineers, social workers to science fiction writers, have come from all kinds of colleges, many of which you’ve never heard of? Would you rather see your student for who they are, not for who a very tiny slice of the over 2,000 colleges in this country require them to be, and then find the schools that will happily welcome them with open admissions arms?

If you choose the first camp, please don’t play the heartbroken card if things don’t work out as you’d hoped. You opted in as you had every right to do. But you made your choice.

And to the press who covers college admissions, maybe it’s time you made a different choice, too?

Put your name on it

Homework assignments, exams, and yes, college applications—you can’t submit them without attaching your name. You’re claiming ownership and saying, “I did this.” And there will be a record of your work that you’ll have to stand beside no matter the outcome.

What if you had to do that with everything?

Your boss asks you to organize the stockroom at your part-time job. What if you had to put your name on the finished product?

You approach your teacher after class to ask for extra help, guidance on a project, or a letter of recommendation–what if you had to put your name on the request?

The server at the coffee shop gets your order wrong. What if you had to put your name on the way you respond?

College admissions pressure can chip away at perspective. Some families give way too much attention and gravity to elements that are on your permanent record and not enough to those that aren’t. If you care a lot more about getting your desired number of community service hours signed off than you do about actually contributing and doing a good job, that’s the loss of perspective I’m talking about. The same can be said about the kid who’s off the charts with qualifications but who’s also an arrogant jerk to his counselor, his teachers, and his fellow students. He’s putting plenty of energy into places where he’ll need to sign his name, but forgetting that his name remains attached to his behaviors outside of those records, too.

The message here is not that kids must be perfect human beings all the time. Nobody pulls that off, and colleges really don’t expect it.
But it’s worth considering—not just for kids, but for adults, too—how we might change our behavior if we had to sign our names to it.

The most well-liked, respected, successful kids I’ve had the pleasure of knowing don’t reserve their best selves for official documents. They understand that their reputation is more than a resume and that day-to-day actions add up over time. They act like everything they do will have their name on it.

Whatever you’re doing today, would you do it any differently if you had to put your name on it?