Who did you help?

In this podcast, Adam Grant discusses his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success and cites three data-proven reasons that successful givers are ultimately the most successful overall in an organization.

1. Social capital benefit
Everyone wants to work with givers because they go above and beyond and do things that are not in their job description. They are sought out. When you have a choice about who to work with, you ask for them. They’re the people you trust to be your subordinate or your boss. They just have better reputations.

2. Motivation
Givers have more meaning in their work because it contributes to something larger than themselves. The time they spend trying to support other people and help them gives them a sense of purpose.

3. Learning
The time you devote to helping other people solve their problems helps you solve the organization’s problems.

If you want to feel more fulfilled, achieve more success, and yes, impress colleges, try spending less time asking yourself, “What did I achieve for myself today?” and start asking, “Who did I help today?”

Put on a show

During her 30-year career teaching high school English, my mom used to say that great teaching was theater. She never felt like just explaining Shakespeare or Chaucer or Twain would make the desired impression on the classroom full of teens. If you wanted to get and keep their attention, you needed to put on a show.

It turns out we all have opportunities to turn our performance up by putting on a show of our best selves.

You’re selling raffle tickets to a fundraiser. You can sit behind the desk and wait for willing raffle enthusiasts to arrive. Or you can stand up and spend the next 20 minutes trying 40 different pitches to entice those passing by. Guess which way will teach you something about sales and inevitably lead to selling more tickets?

Your teen tells you they’re tired of taking piano lessons. You can defend the lessons’ value and cite how much money you’ve already invested in piano perfection. Or you can put on a show and use the conversation as an opportunity to really listen to what your student is thinking and feeling. The show opens up the door for more understanding and maybe even to your student asking you for advice in the future.

You’re headed to a faculty meeting during the busiest time of the year, with papers and to-do’s and a million other things you could get done during this time. But if you’re going to be in the room anyway, what’s the best show you could put on to make the time better for you and for everyone else?

Putting on a show isn’t about being disingenuous. It’s recognizing that this moment, this interaction, this question or meeting or insight–it matters. It can move things forward. But not without someone acknowledging and capitalizing on the opportunity.

When you do this enough to make it a habit, it won’t take long before you’re known for always making things better whenever involved. And that’s never a bad reputation to have when you’re looking to stand out.

Make it count. It’s showtime.

Leadership litmus test

The simplest test of whether or not you’re a leader:

1. Are you causing a change to happen?
2. Are people willingly joining you to help make that change?

Authority and titles don’t make you a leader. People doing what you tell them to because they have no other choice doesn’t make you a leader. Maintaining the status quo by doing the same things in the same ways doesn’t make you a leader.

Making change happen, and bringing willing people along for the ride—that’s the real test.

Delayed gratitude

Here’s an easy formula for showing gratitude in a way that’s certain to make an impact.

First, express your thanks (here’s some advice on how to do it well).

Then set a reminder (use a calendar or an app) in the future based on when you think you’ll have something to show for the help you received. Extra help in a class might mean a reminder five days from now, right after the big exam. A letter of recommendation for college might mean a reminder five months from now when you know where you’ve been accepted. Advice on your college savings strategy might mean a reminder one or two years from now when you know how much you’ve saved and how much it’s grown.

You can see the punchline coming.

When the reminder does its job, reach back out to the person who helped you, thank them again, and tell them specifically how the advice has benefited you.

A second, delayed expression of gratitude extends your goodwill. It makes it more likely that the person will help you again in the future. And it’s just a nice thing to do.

The formula for more great days

Want to start regularly coming up with positive answers to that daily question, “How was your day?” Try this.

1. Pick one thing to do more of.
2. Pick one thing to do less of.
3. Pick one thing to stop doing entirely.

Habits, thoughts, actions—anything at all can make the list provided both doable and honest. You—not anyone else, or even worse, colleges—should decide the best answers for yourself.

Pick your three things, then stick to them.

And students, don’t assume that you don’t have any freedom to make those choices. You have far more agency in this process than you might think. It’s your journey to college, and your life, after all.

It’s a simple formula. But it works.

Contribution > résumé

My first job out of college was at a test prep company, and while I was employed there, our office burned down overnight. It happened right in the middle of the fall busy season, with hundreds of students enrolled in courses to prepare for the SATs, ACTs, and the various exams for graduate school. All our materials, computers, and most troublingly our classrooms—everything had been reduced to ashes.

Our owner learned of this when one of our part-time teachers called him at home on Sunday morning with good news and bad news. Bad: he’d been watching the news and learned that our office was toast. Good: his first call was to his friend who worked as an event manager at a local hotel, and he’d secured us multiple conference room spaces at a reduced rate to use as classrooms for the next 30 days.

In one phone call, his contribution went so far beyond teaching that he earned years of gratitude and glowing recommendations from our mutual boss.

The world today will measure, reward, and remember you for your contributions far more than for your résumé (or your college application, or your test scores).

If you start and end every day with, “What contributions did I make?” it will be impossible to encapsulate your value in a few pages. And that’s exactly how you stand out.


Intellectual humility

It’s hard for an admissions committee not to notice when a student has demonstrated a sincere love of learning. A real love of learning has a lot less to do with the drive to get good grades than it does the genuine curiosity to know more, to understand, to fill in learning’s blank spots. A student who gushes about the joy she finds working through the most difficult calculus problem sets with her fellow math-letes is demonstrating more love of learning than the student who responds to a query about his favorite subject with, “I like math because there’s always a right answer.”

But nobody loves to learn everything equally, and colleges don’t expect that you will, either. That’s why the most appealing students balance their intellectual curiosity with intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is the confidence to admit what you don’t know, to consider different points of view, and even to find something fascinating simply because it’s beyond your comprehension. It lets you admit the absence of knowledge while still respecting the subject. The student who discusses why she loves Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is demonstrating intellectual curiosity. A student who relates how he wanted to read the book but couldn’t get past page 50 because he just couldn’t understand it is demonstrating intellectual humility. And both are demonstrating traits that will help them learn, grow, and succeed in college.

College admissions pressure pushes some kids to focus so much on demonstrating what they know that they lose the joy of discovering knowledge and the comfort with the absence of it. But the most rewarding learning happens when you pair both together.

Learning and growth

Two of the most valuable experiences you can seek, appreciate, and relate on a college application are learning and growth.

Learning and growth take place in lots of forms, and not all of them present as successes or achievements. Teaching yourself to play the drums and then starting a band qualifies, but so does flubbing your trumpet solo due to lack of practice and resolving never to let yourself or the jazz band down again. Overcoming your struggles in AP chemistry is a pride-worthy achievement, but so is bringing your very best effort, meeting with your teacher regularly for extra help, and still scraping by with a C-. Always doing the right thing is wonderful, but so is the sincere apology you offer to make things right after you let someone down. The learning and growth are there in all those scenarios.

Expecting—or presenting—yourself to move seamlessly from one mistake-free success to the next is unrealistic. Learning and growth come in many forms, but that overall forward progress, sometimes in leaps, sometimes in incremental steps, and sometimes to make up for lost ground, is what helps you get better with age. And it’s what makes you an appealing candidate for colleges.

Seek and benefit from opportunities to learn and grow, and you’ll have no trouble presenting yourself as someone who will continue that progress once you get to college.