Best apologies, best intentions

What should a major airline do when they mistakenly send their customers an email promoting flights to Columbus along with a beautiful photo of…Cincinnati?

Hope nobody notices?

Blame it on a technological snafu?

Hide behind language like “we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused”?

If you’re Alaska Airlines (or more specifically, if you work in the communications department at Alaska Airlines), you own up to the mistake like a human.

It’s a good reminder for students (and parents). Honest mistakes can happen despite best intentions. But honest apologies happen because of them.

Your contribution track record

“How will you contribute to the campus community?”

Colleges wonder this when considering every applicant. In fact, many colleges outright ask that question as an essay prompt within the application. As you progress through high school, it’s worth considering the examples you’re setting that show your potential to contribute as a college student.

What is “the campus community”? It’s the students, the faculty, even the residents who live near the school.  The football team, the classmates in your French Lit 201 class, your French Lit 201 professor, the members of a club or organization, the residents in your dorm, and your roommate are all part of the campus community.

In the college admissions sense, any effort you make that benefits one or more members of that community besides just yourself counts as a contribution. Volunteering, playing in the marching band, leading campus organizations, helping your roommate pass calculus, playing intramural sports, raising your hand in class—every one of those actions has an effect on those around you. It may or may not be an act of pure service. But your effort still amounts to a contribution.

And the best way to show colleges your potential to contribute to their campus community? Contribute to your current campus community.

Accolades, awards, and recognition are all effective ways to demonstrate your level of achievement. But contributions don’t necessitate formal recognition. Even the slowest runner on the cross country team can still find a way to contribute. In fact, the ability to make an impact even when you’re not the smartest or the fastest or best is an even stronger sign of your potential to contribute. It shows colleges that no matter where you choose to involve yourself, you’ll always find a way to make something happen.

As you consider ways to boost your chances of admission to the colleges that interest you, look for opportunities to get even more involved in whatever it is you choose to do. You’ll show plenty of potential with a strong contribution track record.

Passion will reveal itself

For students who are fretting (or parents who are fretting on their students’ behalves) over trying to identify their passion so they can select a career and choose an appropriate college major, consider giving Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love a read. Newport makes a convincing argument that (1) “follow your passion” is actually bad advice, and (2) passion comes after you put in the effort to become excellent at something valuable, not before.

Yes, you should listen to your interests and strengths as you know them today (a student who’s always struggled in math is less likely to find joy and career success as an accountant). But you don’t yet know what your passion will be when you’re 22 or 32 or 42. Don’t rush it.

Put in the time, effort, and interest as you find your way through subjects, opportunities, and work that make sense at the time. The passion will eventually reveal itself.

What you don’t yet know

Students, four years ago, who were you and what did you know? It doesn’t matter whether you’re 18 or 14 today. Chances are that when you scan back four years, you’ll do some serious head-shaking. You likely felt at the time like you’d grown wise beyond your years. But the benefit of four years of hindsight points out that much of that confidence came from simply not yet knowing what you didn’t yet know.

Now, imagine yourself in the future walking across the stage at your college graduation.

Compared to today, how much will you know then? How much will you have learned, seen, and experienced? How many people will you have met, how much fun will you have enjoyed, and how many opportunities will you have had to learn from your successes and mistakes?

What will you have learned about yourself and the world around you? How much will you know then that you don’t yet know today?

No matter how knowledgeable and confident you may be now, how do you imagine the you on that stage in the future will view the you of today?

And most importantly, do you honestly believe that only a prestigious college can usher in those wonderful insights and changes?

You don’t yet know what you don’t know today. But there are plenty of colleges beyond the famous ones to help you make the wonderful leap from not knowing to knowing.

Good. Enough.

Projects, papers, college applications—how do you know when it’s time to stop polishing and time to start shipping it out the door?

Something worth doing is worth doing well. But sometimes the quest for perfection just becomes a stall, another day or week to hide instead of a day or week to improve whatever it is you’re working on.

“Good enough” has a pejorative connotation, like you stopped short of making something as good as it possibly could have been. Instead, try for a new outcome using the same two words.

“Good. Enough.”

You can make something great, and avoid unnecessary stalling, when you give up “perfect” (which it never is) and replace it with “Good. Enough.”

Responding vs. correcting

Counselors, how do you respond when a student or parent makes a statement as if it’s a fact?

That college is a lot easier to get into if you apply in the liberal arts.

Without a great SAT score, the best colleges won’t even look at you.

That school gives preference to ______ (alumni/athletes/minorities, etc.).

They’re not asking you a question. They’re not seeking your opinion. But you also have a professional responsibility. To let a factually inaccurate statement go unchecked, especially one that could affect the student’s college planning, is a tacit endorsement of the statement.

Here’s a non-confrontational way to consider responding:

“Oh, really? That hasn’t been my experience.”

Tone is everything here. Say it as if you’re simply curious, not combative. Use the same voice you’d use if responding, “Really? That’s interesting.”

Many students and parents will then choose to engage further, especially if the topic is one that affects decisions they’re making. And then you’re in the role of responding to their inquiry, not correcting their misinformation.

Competing collaboratively

Another great share from Wharton’s Adam Grant. In his podcast episode this week, “Become friends with your rivals,” Grant explores how even in those competitions that are zero sum, like Olympic marathon races, where there can only be one winner, rivals actually perform better when they help each other. My favorite clip:

“Some competitions are zero sum. But our feelings about competing don’t have to be. Supportive rivalries click into place when you’re working towards something larger than your own success. Find a rival you admire. Tell them why you respect them. Explore what you can accomplish together. And then bring on the friendly competition. And bring it on as hard as you can.”

If you’re a high school student with someone in your circle you identify as a rival–a fellow student who shares the top spot in the class with you, the actress with whom you always compete for lead roles, or a competitive runner on another school’s cross country team–what would happen if you found a way to help each other be better? Not at the expense of your own progress and success, but in support of it?

Imagine the student at the top of the class going to her rival and suggesting they pair up to help each other prepare for their most difficult exams, while simultaneously tutoring their fellow students who were struggling in those courses. Neither would refrain from trying to best the other on exam day. But they’d make each other—and their classmates—even better. And there’s not a single college that wouldn’t take notice of their commitment to competing collaboratively.

“I don’t know”

In her latest newsletter, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author Angela Duckworth reminds us of the value of intellectual humility.

“Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness.

Do engage with people with genuine intellectual humility. When you’re asked a question you haven’t considered before, consider it a gift. And, perhaps, like the professor I was admiring the other day, follow ‘I don’t know’ with ‘Thank you. Great question. I’ll need to work on that.’”

And here’s a past post of mine on the value of intellectual humility in the college admissions process.

Run a namebranditis test

Do you have namebranditis, a condition causing those afflicted to fixate on prestigious colleges due only to their names (and to vague reasons like “it’s a great school”)?

Here’s an easy test.

Imagine that every school ranked in the US News Top 50 all decided overnight to adopt new names that bear no connection to the university. Harvard becomes “Eastern Higher Learning.” Stanford becomes “Big Sky University.” Yale becomes “Life Prep College.” And any student admitted must sign a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting any mention (including on a future resume) of the former name. So you couldn’t tell an employer you’d gone to “the school that used to be called Harvard.”

Now, gauge your level of interest. If you’re still just as excited about the idea of attending (or of your student attending) one of those formerly famous schools, that’s a sign you’re considering it for the right reasons for you. But if you’d be less interested, if you’d be crushed to learn an admission would mean attaching yourself to a less famous name, it’s a sign you’ve likely got a case of namebranditis. It’s also an indicator that it’s time to think more deeply about what you hope or expect to gain from your college experience, and what type of schools are most likely to offer those opportunities.

Is this worth it?

The newswires—and the college admissions community’s social media posts—were filled yesterday with the breaking story of a 25-million-dollar scheme to help wealthy parents buy their kids’ way into highly selective colleges, including Yale, Georgetown, and USC. A well-known private counselor was charged with running the racketeering scheme, and several Hollywood celebrities were also included in the indictment.

And with every repost and every mention of this story, I kept wondering the same thing. Even to the most prestige-obsessed family, is this really worth it?

I don’t even mean from a financial standpoint, as the wealth of these parents, some of whom paid sums in excess of $500,000, clearly exceeds any pain of payment. But is it worth the risk-to-reward ratio?

Is it so important for some parents to see their kids attend a prestigious college that they’ll risk a federal indictment to buy a spot? Are they really comfortable setting the example for their kids that it’s OK to use your money to break the law to get what you want?

What drove them to take such an extraordinary risk? Was it the status symbol and bragging rights? Did they think it would be a family blemish to send their student to a less-famous college? Or did they generally believe that in spite of all the privilege bestowed upon their kids, they’d still be at a life disadvantage if they attended a school that didn’t land on the US News rankings?

College admissions combined with wanting the best for our kids breeds parental irrationality. But this is a level I just can’t get my head around.

So here’s my question to families: Are your current efforts worth it?

The SAT classes, the tutoring, the activities and coaching and guidance aimed at securing a better college admissions outcome–is it worth it?

I’m in the business of guiding families through this process, so clearly, I see value in all of those things. But the value will and should be different for every family. And more importantly, there should always be a line, a line where the family says, “We’re willing to do a lot of things, but we’re not willing to do that.”

I won’t prescribe where you should draw your line (at a minimum, please draw it long before you break the law). But I’d start by continually asking yourself, “Does this feel worth it?”

And if it doesn’t feel worth it, I’d listen to that instinct.