Failure statements

If you don’t put any effort into a class–you don’t participate, complete assignments, or study for the big exam–and you fail, you’ve made one kind of statement with that failure.

But when it comes to something that might not work—leading a fundraiser, trying out for the team, producing a musical in your community, etc.—if you really put in the time and the effort to get the result you wanted and things still just don’t go your way, you’ve made a very different failure statement.

The former statement is: I didn’t care enough to try.

The latter statement is: I cared enough to try in the face of potential failure.

Make enough good failure statements and you’ll eventually have plenty of successes to talk about. And you’ll inevitably have plenty of college options.

Real world attitudes

There are two problems with perfect GPAs, perfect test scores, MVPs, student body presidents, and most other accolades that can be listed on a college application: none are universally attainable (genes dictated I could have been a competitive miler in high school) and almost none of them translate easily into the adult real world.

Yes, the lessons and work ethic developed in pursuit of them is invaluable. But you don’t have to reach the pinnacle to develop those lessons. And that leads to the broader point.

Generosity, insight, loyalty, honesty, fun, tenacity, creativity and dozens of other traits—each is an attitude. Attitudes are universally available. Attitudes are not dependent on your genes or your economics or your chosen high school. Attitudes are choices. And attitudes put to great use become skills. You can learn each one if you’re willing to make the choice.

Attitude isn’t easily captured in a GPA or a test score. But it always translates to the real world.

Don’t make today a cliché

Thanksgiving can mean radically different things for different families. But for those of us who will be gathering around the table with our loved ones today, it’s an opportunity. An opportunity to slow down, to step away from our buzzing phones and gadgets, and to take some time to thoughtfully consider just how much we have to be grateful for. Gratitude has been scientifically proven to alter the way our brains work. We’re happier, more productive, more patient, and ultimately more successful when we focus on what’s right and what we have rather than what’s wrong and what’s missing.

Last year, I wrote this Thanksgiving post reminding families not to let college admissions and all of its associated stressors seep into your Thanksgiving. After 19 years and helping over 12,000 of our Collegewise students find their way to the right colleges, I promise that not one of them sustained admissions damage by taking Thanksgiving off from the race. I hope the past words, and the included wisdom of veteran (non-Collegewise) counselor Patrick O’Connor, resonate with you this year, too.

Happy Thanksgiving.

There’s a better way

This video of cyclist Michael Guerra sums up pretty much all of the recommendations I make on this blog. And it’s also a good reminder of how we should approach anything important.

He didn’t break established rules. He didn’t cheat. Not sure it’s so safe for him, but he didn’t appear to put anyone else at risk. He just considered that maybe what everyone else was doing wasn’t the best way. And that opened the door to finding a smarter, better, harmless way to get where he wanted to go.

Maybe the prestige-obsessed, overworked, over-scheduled, under-rested, over-test-prepped, anxiety-filled rite of passage isn’t the best way to prepare for college and for life?

Admissions agency

I’ve heard my friend and Collegewise Chief Academic Officer, Arun Ponnusamy, remind students how much “agency” they have in the college admissions process. He’s referring to your power, influence, and instrumentality. Students, you might feel like you don’t get a voice, that the world has already decided that famous colleges are better, that test scores measure your worth, that you are a voiceless cog in a process that’s defined all the acceptable outcomes. But that perception just isn’t true. It’s your process, it’s your future, and the more you recognize and embrace your agency, the better it’s all going to go for you. He should know. He read applications at three of the most selective colleges in the universe (University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA). And he’s helped hundreds of students apply and get accepted to the right colleges.

As the director of college counseling and outreach at The Derryfield School in New Hampshire and a widely trusted admissions expert, Brennan Barnard has also spent years on the front lines helping students find their college admissions agency. His latest Forbes piece, “College Admission, Helplessness, And Choice,” doesn’t just remind students that they have far more agency than they may realize; he actually lays out a dozen specific areas, from high-stakes testing to college rankings to peer pressure, and offers both encouragement and advice to help students regain their voices.

If you’re a student, please read it. If you’re a counselor, please share it. And if you’re a parent, please encourage your kids to embrace it (and please applaud them if they do).

Good reassurance

Some families want to measure every potential decision based on its perceived college admission value. Would it be better to go to a summer program or to volunteer? Which leadership position would be the most impressive? Should I edit the yearbook or audition for the school play? Making informed decisions that satisfy colleges’ stated requirements is good planning. But making every decision against an imagined rubric where colleges label some choices as inherently more valuable (to them) than others is not only letting someone else make all your decisions for you, but also guessing—often incorrectly—what the decider thinks is important.

What many of these families are seeking is reassurance. They want reassurance that this is the right choice, that they will not regret it. They want some sort of proof that everything will be OK. It’s completely natural to want this. But the problem with reassurance is that it’s not a renewable resource. As soon as you receive it, it’s gone. It doesn’t last. If you’ve ever checked your pockets a dozen times for your passport or your phone or your wallet—just to make sure it’s still there—you’ve experienced this. If you’re a family who seeks lots of admissions information and advice but never feels better after receiving it, you’ve experienced this. And if you’re a counselor who feels like you repeatedly answer different versions of the same questions from the same family, you’ve experienced this.

If you’re used to seeking reassurance, it’s a hard habit to break. But if you recognize it as a habit, and you want to break it, one way to start is to accept that no amount of reassurance will ever be enough. Seeking it just perpetuates both your need and the cycle of seeking.

And the more difficult but ultimately liberating realization is that you can find your own reassurance. You know if you’d rather go to a summer program or volunteer. You know whether you’d like to edit the yearbook or audition for the school play. You know which leadership position actually appeals to you based on the change you’d like to make within that organization.

You still can’t be sure everything will be OK (we really never know that). But you know what’s important to you, you know what the factors are, and most importantly, you know the person making the decision. That’s good reassurance.

Are results everything?

It’s easy to justify a lot of behaviors, particularly during the college admissions process, by pointing to one result.

Your ACT score went up five points. You earned a 4.0 GPA. You got into the college of your choice. What’s more important than those results?

What if those 50 hours of prep cost your family more money than they could afford? What if you spent less time doing something you love like playing the clarinet? What if you alienated your teachers and fellow students with a get-an-A-at-any-cost mentality? Were the side effects worth it?

Don’t just consider the results. Consider the side effects, too.

Acting as if

You probably see roles or opportunities that you wish were available to you. Team captain, shift manager, a valued team member or trusted confidant or even a leader. Whatever the goal, you’ll reach it faster if you start acting as if.

How would a team captain behave before they were actually the captain? Here’s what they don’t do—wait in the background, more concerned with their own success than they are the team’s, but resolving to change that behavior if they get the captain’s nod. The path to becoming the team captain is to behave like one.

I’m not suggesting you usurp or undermine existing authority. You’re not acting as if you’ve already been elected club president. You’re acting as if you were someone who will one day be elected club president. What does that person do, today, tomorrow, and the week after that? Whatever the answer, that’s where you want to go.

You learn, you get experience, and you demonstrate your potential when you’re acting as if.

Like they were in the room

Here’s a quick but effective way to improve the mood, trust, and overall team health of your group—talk about people like they were in the room.

Your club, your organization, your counseling office–wherever you and others come together to do work you care about, make the decision to talk about people as if they were there in the room with you. Don’t drag one person’s work or reputation through the coals just because you think their absence brings you immunity. When you disparage someone who isn’t present, you’re not just doing damage to them. You’re damaging your reputation. You’re damaging morale. And you’re damaging the mutual trust and respect that’s vital to the health and success of any group.

It’s simple, it’s free, and best of all, it’s your choice.


A student applying to college is trying to communicate:

I’m ready and excited for college.
I’ll make an impact inside and outside of the classroom.
I’m resilient enough to forge through difficulties.
I’ll take full advantage of the opportunities available to me.
I’ll enjoy learning from and interacting with the faculty.
I’m prepared for the independence of college.

How do you think those messages land if you also communicate:

But when I have a question for the admissions office, my parents always call for me.

The more involved parents are in the college admissions process, the less involved the student is. And that message is incongruous with everything a student is trying to communicate in their application.