Failure as a recipe for success

One of my favorite stories to share at Collegewise seminars is that of my former student from many years ago, Meg, who wrote her college essay about the fact that she’d lost every election she had ever entered in high school (and there were lots). These were lopsided losses, too. But she was the first to make fun of herself about it. She was likeable, self-deprecating, and at the same time found a way to exude confidence without taking herself too seriously.

She was also admitted to her first-choice college—Notre Dame.

Failure gets a bad rap in college admissions. Kids may think they need to excel at everything they touch, but the truth is that there’s great value in going after something you want, falling short, dusting yourself off, and coming back for more. Colleges know it’s those kids–not the perfectionists who would never put themselves in failure’s path–who are likely to take advantage of the bounty of opportunities available to them in college.

Meg tried hard in all of those elections. And even after her most lopsided of losses, she still came back and ran again for other offices. Multiple times. And in between those failures, she went out and made valuable contributions somewhere else. It would have been clear to anyone who read her application and essay that she was not afraid to challenge herself, that she would never be deterred just because something didn’t work out as planned, and that whatever she was able to get involved in, she found a way to make herself indispensable.

Failure can sometimes be a recipe for success.

Free Collegewise webinar on highly-selective admissions

I spend much of my space here preaching that prestigious colleges aren’t necessarily better schools, that what you do while you’re in college is much more important than where you do it. But more importantly, I want students to look for the right college fits, and for some students, those fits might include some highly-selective colleges. If you’re considering applying to any schools that deny most of their applicants, I hope you’ll consider attending this upcoming free Collegewise webinar, which I’ll be moderating.

Highly-Selective College Admissions
A free Collegewise webinar for students and parents
Thursday, April 16        5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PST
(What time is that in my time zone?)

Attendance is limited to 200 people, and registration is required. Click here to register.

Have you ever wondered how those students who get accepted to schools like Stanford, those in the Ivy League, and other high-selective colleges stand out from the rest of the applicant pool? This webinar will feature Collegewise counselors who have read applications at some of the most selective colleges in the country— Arun Ponnusamy (University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA), Monica Brown (Harvard), and Christopher LaBounty (MIT). They will not only reveal how the most competitive colleges in the country select their freshman classes, but also share Collegewise strategies to improve your chances of admission. Attendees will be invited to submit questions before and during the webinar.

To reserve your space, just register here. During registration, you’ll also have the opportunity to submit a question for our presenters.

I hope you can join us.

Don’t make the chase about getting in

I remember when a student I was counseling came into my office one day and told me that he’d signed up to take two summer courses on the Civil War at a local community college. He never asked me if it would help his chances of getting into his dream school. He never asked me if doing something different would make him “look better.” He never tried to impose strategy on what was already a noble motive. He was fascinated with the Civil War, he wanted to learn more about it, and he could chase that interest by taking courses down the street from his house for about $20 a unit. Done. No strategic discussion necessary.

That kind of curiosity and initiative is exactly what colleges want from applicants (he later attended Yale…as a history major).

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t make deliberate college planning decisions or that you shouldn’t ask for advice. But when you drive all your decisions by what you think will look best to colleges, you become more about the chase to get in and less about the chase to learn, grow, and experience new things.

When you become all about the chase to get in, you lose your identity. And you look a little desperate. Would you attract someone you wanted to date by basing your every decision on what you thought they might appreciate? (“No” is the correct answer, by the way.) It doesn’t work in dating or college admissions. Far better to be your best version of yourself and trust that the right partner or college will appreciate the real you.

Instead of chasing your desire to get admitted to a prestigious college, chase things that don’t rely someone who’s never met you to say “Yes.” Chase opportunities to get smarter, learn more about yourself, meet people, and to have fun. Those are guaranteed to pay off no matter where you go to college.

Passion carries

“Passion” is a frequently-used college admissions term. Colleges want it, and students are advised to discover, pursue and demonstrate a passion for something while they’re in high school.

But I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about why passion is such a desirable trait. Passion is appealing in an applicant because students who have it tend to carry it with them to college, whether or not they continue to direct that passion to the same interest.

Let’s say you love playing the trumpet. You’re in the school jazz band. You take private lessons. When you could be doing lots of other things, you choose to practice your trumpet or play in live performances. It’s fair to say that you’re passionate about the trumpet.

Now, maybe you decide to major in music while you’re in college. Or maybe you play in the university marching band. Or maybe the trumpet becomes a hobby, and you form your own little jazz quartet that plays at the campus pub on weekends. In any one of those scenarios, your passion for the trumpet benefits your new college.

But even if you leave the trumpet—or music entirely—behind after high school, odds are that you’ll bring your passion with you to college and redirect it somewhere. Maybe you’ll find a new form of expression, like art. Maybe you’ll enjoy time as a bio major in the lab. Maybe you’ll join a campus debate, mock trial, or intramural sports team.

You know how good it feels to commit yourself to something. You don’t mind practicing because you know that’s how you get better. Those feelings are familiar to you because you learned them as a high school trumpet player. Your trumpet may be left behind, but the passion carries with you.

So don’t worry if you haven’t found a passion that you’re ready to commit your life or even your college years to continuing. Enjoy and work hard at what excites you today. If you later decide to bring that interest with you to college, you can pick schools that will give you that opportunity. But if you decide to leave the interest behind, plenty of colleges will be happy to welcome you—and your accompanying passion—to their campuses.

On holistic evaluations

The University of Virginia’s blog comes through again, this time with one of the better explanations of “holistic evaluations” that I’ve seen–using the analogy of a puzzle. As the writer describes, “In a holistic review, you look at all pieces of the applicant’s puzzle together before you make your decision… As we read, the puzzle comes together. All of the pieces are important, but they vary in size.”

My favorite part is the explanation of test scores using the same puzzle analogy:

“The testing piece is a four-hour piece of your puzzle…It’s obviously important because it contributes to the overall pictures, but it is one component among many and there are other parts of the puzzle that are larger and take considerably longer to evaluate. If you are looking at test scores this evening, I hope you’ll put things in perspective. Yes, testing is important. However, it doesn’t overshadow or knock other parts of your file out of the way.”

On taking ownership (plus a corrected link)

We teach our Collegewise students a college essay concept we call “Own your stories.” Owning your story means that you tell a story only you could tell. It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering experience or something deeply personal. Your experiences of playing in the marching band, having a part-time job, taking care of your little sister after school, etc., are not the same as those of other students who may have done those things. To take ownership, you focus on the parts that are unique to you.

But taking ownership of any story is easier if you took ownership during the experience.

If you write for the school paper and do only what’s expected of you (you attend the meetings, write what’s assigned, and turn your articles in on time), you share ownership of that experience with thousands of other students who did exactly the same thing. And you’re probably not getting as much out of it as you could have.

What if you decided to take ownership of your time on the paper? You could take an outside writing class in person or online. You could find three successful journalistic giants in the industry and pour through all of their work. You could pitch bigger stories, jump in and help your peers doing advertising or photography, or write a blog that shows the development of your pieces from concept to finished product. Now you’re doing things most people in your position aren’t doing. You’ve taken ownership.

Taking ownership doesn’t mean that you ignore what’s asked of you and just do what you want to do. It means making the conscious decision to bring energy and enthusiasm to whatever you’re doing. It means making an impact and leaving a legacy. A writer for the school paper who does only what’s asked of him will easily be replaced next year. A writer who took ownership of that role will be missed.

If you’re going to spend your time doing anything, whether it’s taking algebra II, teaching kids to read, or washing cars for minimum wage after school, you have a choice. You can do what the average person in that position would do by just showing up and doing only what’s asked of you. Or you could decide that your time is valuable enough to take ownership and make the experience valuable.

P.S. Yesterday’s post had the wrong link for the University of Virginia’s blog post on timing your reporting of test scores. The correct link is here.

Room for role-players

In professional sports, some players are superstars. These are the perennial all-stars, the future hall-of-famers, the athletes who are universally recognized as being that much better than the rest.

But there are also role-players—the athletes who aren’t the best in the game or the best on their own teams, but who find a way to do one particular thing so well, they become valuable contributors. They’re the great rebounders in basketball who always come down with the ball, the passers in soccer who can always find an open player, and the special teams player in football who can’t carry the team as a running back, but makes the key block during punt returns. They may not get all the accolades, but their teams would miss them if they stopped showing up.

Role-players are valuable outside of sports, too.

  • Maybe you don’t have a leadership position in your club or organization, but you write so well that you created a regular newsletter for your members that keeps everyone informed.
  • Maybe you aren’t the best violinist in the orchestra, but you can sight read so well that you’re always the first to play a new piece correctly.
  • Maybe you didn’t get the part in the school play, but you were the most positive and committed understudy the teacher had ever seen.
  • Maybe you aren’t a manager at your part-time job, but you’re so good at making customers happy that the clothing store always has a good sales day when you’re on the floor.
  • Maybe you aren’t the best writer in your English class, but you’re willing to put your hand up and contribute when the teacher is leading a discussion about the book.

If you’re not one of the best, find a way to make contributions by doing something that you do excel at. Superstars—and colleges—need good role-players, too.

Don’t get GPA obsessed

The classes you take and the grades you earn are more important than the GPA that appears on your transcript.

I’m training two new Collegewise counselors who, between them, have worked in admissions at three different colleges. And not surprisingly, they compared past admissions notes and revealed that their former admissions offices each used a different formula to recalculate their applicants’ GPAs.

As I’ve discussed in past blog entries, most colleges don’t just take the GPA that’s calculated on your transcript at face value. They look at what classes were available at your high school, which ones you took, and then recalculate your GPA while paying attention to the rigor of your courses. Some colleges will also include college-level work outside of high school when calculating that GPA; others will not.

But that doesn’t change what virtually every college in the country is evaluating:

What was available at your high school? Which classes did you take, and how rigorous were they? And if you took classes outside of high school, colleges will be impressed by your initiative to pursue your academic interests, especially if you performed well. Whether or not those grades are calculated in your GPA for admissions purposes does not change the figurative credit for making additional efforts to learn.

Take the most rigorous curriculum you can reasonably handle. Thrive in your favorite subjects and do your best in those that don’t come as easily to you. And if you want to learn something outside of high school, from math to hip-hop dance, go for it. The GPA is one measure of your curiosity and work ethic, but it’s not the only one. A student who passes up a hard class just because it doesn’t come with a weighted grade is focusing more on his GPA than he is on the opportunity to take a great class. A student who takes an elective college course over the summer not because he’s interested in it, but because he hopes it will increase his GPA, is focusing on the wrong things.

You don’t have control over how a college treats your GPA. So focus more on your efforts to learn and your willingness to work hard. Academic rigor and performance are always rewarded in some way.

On demonstrating interest

For some colleges, an applicant’s demonstrated interest in the school can influence an admissions decision. But as their most recent blog entry points out: (1) the University of Virginia isn’t one of them, and (2) trying too hard to look interested isn’t a good admissions strategy, especially if you start to annoy admissions officers.

Here’s a past post on how to effectively show interest in a college without making the process even more stressful or expensive.

Just be authentic

We try to follow our own advice here at Collegewise. So it’s not surprising that whether we’re presenting ourselves to an audience, to a potential customer, or even to cyberspace on our website, we do what we tell our students to do in their college applications and essays—just be authentic.

Some people disagree with us when we say that college admissions should be enjoyable, that the prestigious colleges don’t have the market cornered on turning out happy and successful students. That’s OK. When we’re honest about who we are and what we believe, the people who disagree with us can find someone else who matches their view of the college admissions world. And the people who believe what we believe know they’ve found the right place to call home.

When you present yourself to colleges in your applications and essays, be authentic. Sound like you. Help them understand who you are and why you’ve chosen to spend your time the way you have in high school. Admissions officers want to get to know the authentic you, not some contrived version of yourself that you hope will impress them.

Your authentic self won’t please all colleges, and that’s OK. One of those schools that says yes will be the right place for you to call home.