Don’t plan to be the exception

With so much discussion and misinformation about what colleges are supposedly looking for, one resounding truth always comes through:

The strength of your course schedule and your grades in those classes are always the most important factors for admission.

Yes, depending on the schools, lots of other factors, from activities to essays to interviews can come into play. And I’m sure we can all find examples of students who bucked this truth and were admitted without the classes and grades of their fellow admits. But they’re the exception, not the rule.

But you’re attending college to be a student, first; your academic rigor and performance are the best predictors.

I’m not suggesting that you must take AP Everything and have a perfect GPA—the vast majority of colleges in this country don’t require that level of achievement.

But if you ever wonder if you’re doing the right things to prepare for college, ask yourself if you’re taking the most challenging classes you can reasonably handle, and if you’re making the effort every day to do your best work. Plan to be the rule, not the exception.

Summer programs at prestigious colleges?

While there may be some reasons to attend a summer program held at a prestigious college, I’ve written before that gaining an inherent admissions advantage isn’t one of them.

Parke Muth, a current admissions consultant and former associate dean of admission at the University of Virginia, makes the point even more effectively here on his blog:

“While I cannot speak for the policy on how these courses are evaluated by admission officers at all highly selective schools, I can speak to what I believe is most often the case. For the most part, summer programs students enroll in, even the ones at elite colleges and universities, play a small to negligent role in an admission decision. The purpose of these summer programs is not, nor has it ever been, primarily to offer an advantage to students who have the resources to take these expensive courses. The primary purpose is to offer a good program that also brings in a significant amount of money to the college or university. I know of no college or university that has ever said in clear terms that enrolling in a summer program will be a significant advantage in the admission process.”

Play it from your heart

There’s a great scene in the movie Jerry Maguire in which sports agent Maguire, frustrated with his chronically-complaining NFL client, Rod Tidwell, finally explains what’s preventing Tidwell from getting the richer contract he desires so badly.

“Right now, you are a paycheck player. You play with your head, not your heart…when you get on the field, it’s all about what you didn’t get, who’s to blame, who underthrew the pass, who’s got the contract you don’t, who’s not giving you your love—you know what? That is not what inspires people…Shut up! Play the game. Play it from your heart.”

Tidwell has all the skills. But he cares a lot more about what’s in it for him than he does about being great. Great players don’t dispense their greatness like a transaction that takes place only once they’ve gotten what they want. They play for the love of the game and trust that the rewards will follow. And they inspire people because of it.

A lot of high school students approach college prep like Tidwell was approaching football. They’re paycheck students, so driven by what they want—an admission to their dream college—that they’ll only extend themselves if they feel promised the effort will pay off. They’ll raise their hand or participate or do an outside project only if it will boost their grade. They’ll do community service hours only if they’re promised that colleges will appreciate it. They’ll join activities or visit colleges or take a summer class only if they can be reasonably certain an appropriate admissions advantage is attached. And when things don’t turn out as they had hoped, they blame other people (“The teacher didn’t like me!”).

These students execute based on a perceived transaction—I do this, therefore, I get this—not because of genuine curiosity and passion. That’s why they don’t have a favorite class, teacher, or activity. They’re working with their heads, not their hearts.

Can the paycheck students succeed in college? Sure. But measuring your every move against how you will be rewarded makes you a lot less interesting to talk to and learn from. It makes you less desirable to colleges. And it’s not what inspires people.

Nobody can criticize a hard-working student who focuses on your goals. But whether you’re trying out for a team, running for an office, applying for a job, or trying to get into college, remember that you’re more likely to be rewarded when you put your energy into what you can give—energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, caring, etc.—rather than obsess about what you hope to get. You’ll inspire people when you play it from your heart.

Are you just following the recipe?

My brother is an ironman triathlete, the kind who runs a marathon after biking a hundred miles and swimming across a stretch of open ocean. Last week, he sent me this article about how elite swimmers train, which has quite a bit of application outside of the pool (if it didn’t, there would not have been a single reason for him to send an article like this to me).

The author uses the comparison of a cook and a chef. A cook follows a recipe’s instructions to the letter. The dish is a task to be completed, a job to be done. But the chef sees cooking as an art. It’s her passion, and one that she’s consciously pursuing. At every opportunity, she will use her training and knowledge to elevate a dish to be the best it could be. A cook and a chef could prepare the same dish with the same recipe and the same ingredients. But the end result will be very different.

Two swimmers can complete the same workout as it is described on paper. But the champion will consciously do a dozen small things differently to make the workout really count, from altering her breathing, to concentrating on her form, to explosively pushing off the wall at each turnaround. The two swimmers might appear to have completed the same workout. But in fact, the champion gained a lot more from her time in the pool.

Some students approach preparing for college like a cook. They’ll take challenging classes, earn good grades, and involve themselves in activities because that’s what colleges want. They’re following the recipe. As my business partner, Arun, says, these are the kids who are good at executing, a concept I explained here. Cooks aren’t bad kids. They have a great work ethic. And when decisions arrive, they usually have plenty of colleges from which to choose. But the chefs bring something else to the college admissions table.

The student who prepares for college like a chef takes challenging classes because they want to be challenged. They earn good grades because they’re curious and want to learn. They find activities they really enjoy and look for ways to make an impact.  They’re not doing this because they’ve heard it’s what Princeton would want them to do.  They’re doing it because they can’t imagine behaving any differently.

High school chefs can name a favorite class, teacher, and activity. They can tell you what they’re excited to learn more about in college. They can describe the type of college where they envision themselves, and why that school seems like a good fit. Most cooks can only tell you their GPA, test scores, awards, and number of community service hours completed.

A high school cook and chef may have similar transcripts, test scores, and resumes, but they are in fact very different applicants.

If you want to improve your chances of ending up in the admit pile at the college of your dreams, do more than just follow the recipe.

Embrace the good; manage around the rest

Some families worry too much about perceived deficiencies or weaknesses of their high school.

Our school doesn’t have AP chemistry.

The counselors have too many kids.

We’ve had three different basketball coaches since my freshman year.

Those concerns might well be legitimate. But you should know that colleges do not punish applicants for school environments or circumstances beyond their control. What colleges measure is how well you performed in the context of what was available to you.

Your high school probably isn’t perfect. Your college won’t be either (and neither will life as a college graduate). Schools, colleges, jobs, living situations, relationships—to flourish within them means embracing what’s good and managing around what is not. Successful college applicants use their time in high school to develop that skill.

Five things that don’t impress colleges

I’ve often written that while the most successful college applicants took their college planning seriously, they didn’t measure every decision in high school against the yardstick of what will look good to colleges. Certain things like challenging classes and good grades are always appreciated, but there is no magic formula for the entirety of your high school career, and what works for one student might not work for another.

But most admissions officers and counselors would agree that certain misguided strategies just don’t work for anyone. Here are my top five.

1. Résumé padding
The student who joins as many clubs and activities as possible and then does the absolute bare minimum that will allow her to claim involvement will not impress colleges with that resulting long list of activities. It’s fine if you legitimately enjoy doing lots of different things. It’s even OK to quit an activity that’s lost its luster and replace it with something different. But the total number of activities is not nearly as important to colleges as whether or not you enjoyed them, what you learned, and how you made an impact.

2. Excuses
Human beings fail and make mistakes. Colleges understand this. But there’s a difference between an explanation and an excuse. An excuse abdicates responsibility and blames other people. For more details on the difference, see this past post.

3. Letters of recommendation from important people who don’t really know you
The fact that your mother works with Bill Gates is impressive…for her. But it has nothing to do with you. So don’t try to wangle a letter out of Bill that will inevitably say that you’re a nice, mature kid that he has met only in passing. The impressive stature of the letter-writer doesn’t translate to an admissions advantage to you unless he or she can speak specifically about you, your work, and your character. Now, if you worked closely with Bill Gates and he can write a letter describing how important you were to the project, that’s a different story. But don’t trade good content for an impressive author.

4. Awards or recognitions that you have to pay for
Plenty of experiences might be worth paying for in high school. But a message that congratulates you for some sort of recognition and then asks you for money in order to receive it should be viewed with skepticism. Show it to your counselor before you fork over the cash. Most real awards at the high school level don’t charge the honoree for the honor.

5. Parents driving the process
Colleges admit students, not the applicants’ parents. Parents who drive things college-related, from scheduling meetings with teachers, to choosing activities, to selecting colleges and even filling out the applications, often end up with passive students who aren’t prepared for the independence of college life. But parents who cheer from the sidelines, who guide, encourage and advise without constantly jumping in and handling it themselves—they don’t just have more successful college applicants, they also tend to have better relationships with their kids.

Feed your mind

One of the most appealing traits a college applicant can display is a natural curiosity and the drive to feed it. Whether you talk with your math teacher after class to learn more complex problems, take a dance class, learn Kung Fu, teach yourself to play guitar, read voraciously, or find any other way to feed your mind with information or skills that genuinely interest you, you’ll be happier, more knowledgeable, and more competitive for just about any college.

Go break a leg

A great server at a restaurant can completely transform the experience. Lots of people can be polite and get your order right. But there’s an art to being great. The server who makes you feel right at home, who strikes the perfect balance of attentive service without unnecessary interruption, someone who strings together so many contributions—both tangible and intangible—that you leave the restaurant talking about him. Even if you’re dining at the local pizza joint, a server like that delivers an experience that would not have been the same without him. He’s not just doing the job; he’s using it as a platform to put on a show.

When high school students look for ways to stand out, most think immediately of higher achievements—better grades, higher test scores, more notable accomplishments and honors and accolades. There’s no doubt that colleges recognize and reward the hard work that goes into all of those things.

But there’s an additional path that’s more open and accessible—treating each opportunity as a platform, a chance to deliver a performance.

Platforms can be found in any role, from the section editor of the yearbook to the president of the senior class to the kid who takes the orders at the drive-through window to make extra spending money. The president of the club and the member who just joined both have platforms, different ones for sure, but still opportunities to put on performances. They get to decide how hard to work, how they can best make an impact, and how to ensure they’ll be missed when they eventually move on. There’s no need for the new member to wait until she holds an elected office. She’s got a platform right now. Why not start performing?

Admissions officers talk about how they look for “high impact admits,” students who appear bound to make a difference right away both inside and outside of class. The best way to judge the potential for impact is to look for evidence of it in a student’s past. Whether you’re sitting in Spanish class, refereeing youth soccer games, learning karate, or playing the French horn, you have a choice. You can do what’s required and know that you’ll be just like every other student. Or you can use the opportunity to stand out. Your platform is your chance to perform. Go break a leg.

Shortcuts vs. habits

Take this pill and lose weight while you sleep!

It’s easy to be seduced by the promise of a shortcut. The best way to lose weight isn’t easy, but it’s not complicated, either. Eating right, cutting out the cookies, and going to the gym every day means developing habits and repeating them over and over again. It’s the search for the shortcut that makes it more complicated.

Lots of people look for shortcuts in college admissions—one activity, one essay topic, the one alumni recommendation or pay-to-play program or choice of major that will guarantee admission to their dream school.

But like the search for the mythical weight-loss pill, the search for the shortcut just leads to frustration. Becoming a competitive college applicant means developing good habits.

Take challenging courses. Work hard. Commit yourself to activities you care about. Find the right colleges, regardless of prestige. Present yourself clearly and honestly in the applications. These steps won’t necessarily guarantee admission to one particular school any more than doing the hard work to lose weight will guarantee that you’ll win a triathlon. But if you turn them into habits, there will be plenty of colleges waiting to reward you.

If there were shortcuts that actually worked, someone would have found and profited from them already. Take that energy you’re spending searching for the easy way and redirect it into good habits. The habits work much better than the shortcuts do.

How far could you go?

In a career that spans over two decades, Judd Apatow has written, directed, and/or produced some of the entertainment industry’s most successful comedies, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, This Is 40, Superbad, Bridesmaids, Anchorman, and the current hit, Trainwreck. And the introduction of his book, Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy, actually has a lot of great lessons for high school students, whether or not you like Apatow’s movies.

Apatow describes how he developed an obsession with comedy at an early age, even taking a job in junior high as a dishwasher at a local comedy club. But it was in tenth grade that he started working at his high school’s radio station and pitched an idea for his own show. He called comedians’ agents or their PR people, introduced himself as “Judd Apatow from WKWZ radio on Long Island,” and asked to interview their client. He left out that he was only 15 years old.

Over the next two years, this high school student interviewed more than forty comics, TV stars, writers, directors, and even a few movie stars (one of those early interviews was a fledgling comedian in 1983 named Jerry Seinfeld whom Apatow asked, “How do you write a joke?”

As Apatow describes the experience interviewing his idols:

“This was my college education [editor’s note: Apatow later enrolled in the screenwriting program at USC]. I grilled these people until they kicked me and my enormous green AV squad tape recorder out of their homes. I asked them how to get stage time, how long it takes to find yourself as an artist, and what childhood trauma led them to want to be in comedy. I asked them about their dreams for the future and made them my dreams, too. Did I mention I never even aired most of the interviews? I put a few out there, but even then I knew this information was mainly for me—and that the broadcast part was a bit of a ruse.”

The lesson here is not that students must identify what they want to do with their lives (Apatow admits that he never became a great stand-up comedian, but later found that he was quite good at writing jokes for other people). The lesson is that likely without even knowing it, Apatow was embodying five of the most desirable traits that colleges look for in potential students:

1. Passion: Apatow wasn’t doing any of this just so he could put it on his college application. He was genuinely passionate about comedy and went to great lengths to feed that interest.

2. Initiative: Apatow didn’t wait for someone else to create this show or contact the comedians for him. He did that himself. And he proved that he’s someone who can make things happen.

3. Individuality: How many other students do you think could say that they’d done what Apatow did in high school?

4. Love of learning: He had an insatiable desire to learn everything about comedy, so much so that he also transcribed episodes of Saturday Night Live and made a point to watch every stand-up comedian who appeared on talk-shows. None of this would ever appear on his transcript. But he was channeling an intellectualism there that paid off in the form of an admission to college, and was likely instrumental in his success later in life.

5. Likability: It must have been impossible for a college admissions officer not to like this high school kid who had interviewed some of the biggest names in show business.

Apatow let his passion and curiosity drive him to do as much as he could with something that really interested him. Even if he had never pursued comedy after high school, those skills—cold calling, selling himself, interviewing, interacting with adults, etc.—would still have served him well…and made for a great college essay. Best of all, he didn’t do any of this as some sort of college admissions strategy. Like almost all successful applicants, Apatow wasn’t concerned with whether or not he’d ever get any literal or figurative credit for it.

If you made Apatow-like efforts with whatever interests you, how far could you go?