The right formula?

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report on the impact of organized sports on children, preadolescents, and adolescents. The study found that what makes sports enjoyable for kids is not the winning, but rather, “trying hard, making progress, being a good sport, and experiencing positive coaching.” The report is here, and a summary in the New York Times is here.

It might be tempting for some (competitive) readers to dismiss the findings as indicative of a failure to prepare our kids for the harsh realities of the world. But one of those realities is that you can’t always win—at sports, at work, in college admissions, etc. Not even the most successful adults have life-long wining streaks, especially if they’ve taken on real challenges and frequently put themselves in failure’s path. Wouldn’t our kids be more prepared, not less, if they could find joy in working hard, getting better, treating people well, and welcoming help from people who genuinely want them to succeed?

Sounds like the formula to me.

Greatness isn’t reserved

Jay Matthews, venerable and semi-retired education writer at the Washington Post, still resurfaces occasionally and adds his wise thoughts to calm college admissions mania, this time to remind us all about a young filmmaker who was denied from both USC and UCLA’s film schools, enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, and went on to become one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

That student was Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg is a story-worthy illustration that you don’t need to attend a famous college to be successful. But the circumstances surrounding his career path also make him a potentially less effective example. Few professions are as competitive as the film industry. They aren’t just handing out directing jobs to anyone with a degree. And yet Spielberg’s films have won 34 Academy Awards and grossed over 10 billion dollars, making him the highest earning filmmaker of all time.

How many filmmakers have achieved that level of success, regardless of where they went to college? Spielberg’s career is in many ways a well-deserved aberration. That’s why it might be easy for a reader to dismiss the example with, “Well, he’s Steven Spielberg. Of course it didn’t matter where he went to college.”

But the overarching point is not at all an aberration. Most successful people did not attend highly selective colleges. There are professions and people and societal challenges waiting for people to show up and play successful roles. Highly selective colleges can’t possibly produce enough graduates to fill all of them.

So whether or not you become as iconic in your profession as Steven Spielberg did in his, your path to get there will be rich with opportunities to learn, grow, discover your talents, and even have some fun along the way. All you have to do is attend a college where you will avail yourself of them.

Spielberg is story worthy. But the proof is there within just about every profession: greatness isn’t reserved for graduates of colleges that turn away most of their applicants.

It will never be perfect

Collegewise counselor Davin S. forwarded me this New York Times article, “It’s Never Going to Be Perfect, So Just Get It Done.” The link was persnickety and really wanted to require a subscription until I somehow tricked it into revealing itself, but the gist is pretty clear: Voltaire was right—perfect really is the enemy of good. Anything worth doing will likely never be perfect. While you shouldn’t release something that doesn’t make you proud, if you hold out for perfect, your project will be on hold indefinitely.

The “perfect vs. good enough” challenge shows up often for students writing college essays and completing applications. They’ve written. They’ve revised. They’ve sought and incorporated feedback. The work is more than good enough to submit. But the pressure and anxiety take hold and drive them to seek one more opinion, try one more revision, make one more polish, over and over until they’ve not only missed perfect, but also left good enough behind.

This is one of the many reasons so many students scramble right up until the application deadlines. The search for perfect never ends until the deadline decides good enough will have to be good enough.

College applications deserve time and attention. I would never recommend an applicant complete them like a task for which done is always good enough. But when incremental improvements become unnecessary changes, you’re moving further from perfect, not closer to it. Here are two past posts, here and here, to help you tell the difference.

The difference between ordinary and remarkable

Seth Godin’s latest post, “The $50,000 an hour gate agent,” really resonated with me. And you don’t need to be a gate agent, or even a traveler, to embrace the lesson here.

Whatever role you play—teammate, classmate, counselor, friend, coworker, etc.—what would it take for you to make the kind of impression that this gate agent did?

A little caring, a little effort, a little oomph is often all it takes. But the difference is what moves you from ordinary to remarkable.

Everyone = anyone

College applicants—and professional recruiters—can learn a lot about the art of presentation from the way most businesses write job posts.

Too many companies post job openings that include a lot of words without actually saying anything.

A few real examples I found with a brief Google search:

“Seeking accomplished executive able to drive results through high engagement, collaboration, and accountability.”

“Must be a strong, self-motivated, self-directed leader with the ability to effectively operate and deliver high-quality results in a fast-paced environment.”

“Deliver stories and activations within the primary stream of the brand process and create sufficient organizational focus to achieve the revenue goals.”

Sure, the sentences are technically correct in that they are free of spelling and grammar mistakes. But it’s hard to imagine any strong candidate reading these posts alone and deciding, “I think this sounds like the perfect role for me!”

Consider what’s at stake for both the company and the candidate when seeking to fill a position. The company will invest time, energy, and money into whoever is hired. Their performance will almost certainly impact the business and their coworkers. And for just about any applicant, taking a new job is a big deal. In saying yes to an offer, they’re inevitably saying no to something else, like a different offer, or their current job, or even their current city or career path.

With so much on the line, why resort to language that sounds just like every other (terrible) job post? Don’t both parties deserve a thoughtful description of the company, the role, and the type of person who would likely be successful within both? Doesn’t the entire process work better when the ad draws in the right people, and even repels those who would ultimately never thrive in this opportunity?

There are two lessons here:

(1) Presenting something that reads, looks, or sounds like all the others is a lousy way to stand out.

(2) Whether you’re writing a college essay, website copy, or a job post, don’t use bland, recycled wording and descriptions just for the sake of filling the space. Be clear. Be direct. Be specific. Say something. Sound like you.

Presenting like everyone reduces you to just anyone.

P.S. In Collegewise, we’ve built a company we believe is unlike any other. And we’ve given our job posts the thoughtful care and attention to reflect just that.

Don’t get duped

They’re baaaack…

To the annual frustration and ire of good counselors and admissions officers everywhere, students across the country are receiving notifications that they have been nominated for membership to an exclusive, prestigious honor society, one that will open doors to scholarships and impress colleges. All they have to do to avail themselves of the purported benefits? Pay the membership fee.

Don’t do it. They’re scams. All of them.

It’s difficult to be direct with families about this once they and their student have understandably become excited about the nomination. The presentation, a decorative, heavyweight mailing with the embossed invitation and certificate of nomination, certainly feels legit. But the alternative is to allow families to fork over money for a membership that will never deliver all–or any–of the benefits it promises.

I’ve written about this before, so rather than revisit the warning in a new writeup, here’s a past post featuring a quote from Collegewise Chief Academic Officer (who also worked at Caltech and University of Chicago), Arun Ponnusamy, with a particularly effective takedown of the organization currently making their annual pilgrimage into students’ mailboxes, the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS).

You can also find numerous complaints about this organization on the Better Business Bureau’s website.

Even good companies experience customer service challenges. But I would never engage with any organization that has to spend this much time defending itself and its practices in response to unhappy customers who feel they were duped.

Five college topics to discuss before applications

Some of the most important topics in college planning aren’t discussed until there is tension, confusion, or outright family disagreement around them. For families with rising seniors who will soon begin their applications, here are five topics to discuss beforehand.

1. Areas of collegiate disagreement
It’s normal for parents and students to disagree on the right college environment for the student. And while the student who will actually spend four years at the college should drive the decision, parents still get to weigh in, especially if they’re paying the bill. Instead of butting heads, use those areas where you disagree as a chance to learn more about the other viewpoint. Find areas of commonality even if you differ on the schools themselves. And here’s a tip: remember that the decision to apply to a school is separate from the decision to attend (unless a student applies in a binding early decision program). That can take some pressure off when you reach a collegiate impasse.

2. The makeup of your list
Some families will agree on the schools to be included on the list without discussing the makeup of the list itself. What are the student’s chances of admission at each school? Has your high school counselor vetted those predicted odds? Do you have at least one safety school? A financial safety school? Are you swinging for the admissions fences with a long list of reach schools or balancing your list to maximize your chances of admissions success? These are important decisions that deserve to be discussed openly and made thoughtfully. If you’d like some advice on how to do that, I’ve written two past posts, here and here, on the art of crafting a balanced college list, and another on the risks of playing the reach school lottery.

3. The family college budget
Many parents have the instinct to shield their kids from the economic realities of attending college. But I recommend that parents have honest, open discussions with their students about college costs, especially if some schools will be out of your financial reach. Financial aid and scholarships can make up the difference, but you won’t know the specifics of those packages until you apply for aid and are accepted to college. As uncomfortable as that conversation may be, having it now, however unpleasant, is much better than having it later if your student is accepted but your family can’t afford the school.

4. Your goals for the process
What would a successful college application process look like? Is it getting accepted to USC? Becoming the first in the student’s family to attend college? The student taking their first steps towards an exciting next chapter? Whatever the answer, it’s worth discovering where students and parents have agreement or conflict in this area. In fact, some parents may find that their teens are placing far more weight on factors they cannot entirely control—like the admissions decisions—than parents are. What a wonderful opportunity for parents to remind their students that their love is unconditional no matter which colleges say yes.

5. The family application plan
Regular readers know that I recommend students drive their own college application process. Whether or not a family embraces that approach, it’s worth discussing the family application plan. What will your respective roles be? Who will do what? How often will parents check on application progress? It’s much easier to have this discussion now, when you can agree on an approach that works for both student and parent, than to tackle it in the midst of application conflict when one or more parties are saying, “I thought you were taking care of that!” And here’s a past post with my recommended division of college application labor.

Behind the blog

I’ve been writing this blog every day since October 12, 2009. More than 3500 posts–in a row. And I’ve never missed a day.

I write every word myself, and I don’t take guest posts. I find both pressure and pride in owning every post myself.

I’ve never accepted any advertising. Any book or resource or expert that I tout here is based only on my own recommendation. Nobody can buy a mention on my blog.

I rely every day on the assistance of our managing editor at Collegewise, my friend and colleague, Mamie Cosentino. I am not a good copy editor when reviewing my own work, so before a post goes live, Mamie proofreads it and fixes my typos (when one slips through, it’s usually because I didn’t queue it in time for her careful review). But unless I write a sentence that’s incomprehensible, which happens occasionally, she leaves error-free writing untouched.

It will be a bittersweet day when I write my final post on October 12, 2019. I’ve invested hundreds and hundreds of hours in this blog. But it’s paid me back every day since I started. From the discipline to write every day, to the privilege of having a platform, to the joy of hearing from readers willing to share how one or many posts impacted them, I can’t imagine a practice that gives such a priceless return on a measurable investment.

There are plenty of worthy practices to consider trying. But for just about anyone, my advice would be the same: start a daily blog.

Freedom with responsibility

Today seems like the right day to remember two things:

The freedom to pursue a higher education at all is a gift that’s easy to take for granted.

That freedom also comes with a responsibility to value and appreciate the gift.

The opportunity to spend four years learning, growing, discovering your passions, having fun and preparing for a happy, successful life as an adult is a priceless one, but it will pass you by if you don’t do your part to extract the value. That’s a big responsibly, but one that’s worthy of the work and expense that propel your education.

You honor the freedom when you invite the responsibility.

Hard work in exchange for _________.

It feels good when you’re known as a hard worker. And with good reason. In just about any field, very few people are successful based on talent and luck alone. They do the hard work to get where they’ve arrived. That willingness to pair ambition with effort is also an important ingredient in developing a passion. It’s only through those consistent strides to get better that you discover the joy to be found in the pursuit of mastery.

But that doesn’t mean hard work is always good, especially if you’re treating the effort itself as the point of the exercise.

Too many working professionals will brag about their late nights and weekends spent working. They’ll respond to emails at all hours and remain attached to their phone, embracing these actions as part of what it takes to get ahead, as if the frenetic pace and absence of downtime are a sign of career success.

You see this at the high school level, too, with students who dutifully plow through classes, test prep, and a long list of activities, sacrificing their enjoyment and even health at the altar of hard work. But if you ask them about their favorite class or activity, or to describe what excites them about college, it’s as if they’ve been presented with a question that wasn’t on the study guide. They’re exerting effort for effort’s sake, without considering what all that effort is for.

They’ve laudably embraced the necessary work. But both the professionals and the high school students I’ve written about above are applying those efforts for the sake of the effort. They’re busy being busy.

I need to be clear here: I’m not suggesting that anyone should withhold effort unless there’s a guarantee of a successful result attached. But something needs to come of your effort other than the right to claim the effort itself. And those rewards can arrive in many different ways.

A cross country team that runs hard together all season and finishes fifth in the league finals can still look back on their season as an entirely worthwhile pursuit. The comradery built during the punishing workouts together is a reward. The pride in pursuing a sport as demanding as cross country is a reward. The sense of self-confidence, the learning around training and technique, and the health benefits–without the hard work, those team members wouldn’t have enjoyed any of the rewards. But the runners wouldn’t see or appreciate those if they found all the value in simply executing the hard work necessary to complete the season.

Wherever you’re exerting effort, it’s worth occasionally asking yourself exactly what’s being provided in return. It could be a tangible benefit, measurable success, a feeling, knowledge, connection, growth, experience, or even just fun.

But hard work in exchange only for the right to say you work hard? That doesn’t feel like a worthwhile exchange.