What college story are you telling yourself?

There are lifelong Raiders fans who will tell you that their team can get to the Super Bowl this year.  Even though the Raiders are currently in what one writer called “the deepest rebuilding project in the league,” die-hard fans believe their silver and black are going all that way.  It’s not about logic—they believe the story they’re telling themselves.   

There are people who tell themselves that attending a prestigious college will lead to a happier and more successful life.  To them, it doesn’t matter that almost no evidence exists to support that belief.  It doesn’t matter how many successful people there are in nearly every sector who didn’t attend famous colleges.  It doesn’t matter that all signs point to the reality that what you do in college matters far more than the name of the college where you do it.  Most people who tell themselves that prestigious schools are better schools aren’t going to change their minds.

One of the most important decisions you and your family will make is which college story you choose to tell yourself.  One story will lead to a high school career filled with anxiety and the very real chance that no matter how hard you work, you won’t get to join the elite schools featured in your story.  Falling in love with a short list of schools that reject thousands of seemingly perfect applicants every year is a story that only ends well for an equally short list of students.  The story’s ending isn’t up to you.

Or you can tell yourself a different story, one in which your work ethic, curiosity, and character will matter a lot more than one grade, test score or admission decision from a particular college.  That's a story that you get to write.  Care enough about your future to challenge yourself and work hard.  Actively seek out subjects and ideas that interest you.  Discover and develop talents that make you happy.  And most importantly, find colleges that fit you, where you can take those traits and keep developing them for four years of virtually unlimited opportunities for growth and learning.  You control the ending because the story is almost entirely about you.  

Whether you’re planning the start of your high school career or in the middle of your college applications, you get to choose the college story you tell yourself.  Don’t let friends, the media or vague notions about “great colleges” make that decision for you.  Think about it, research it, and talk to people you trust.  Then choose your story yourself.

I think you know which one I’d recommend.

The JFK model of college searching

I often write in posts (here’s one, another, and another) that what you do in college will be more important than where you do it.  You have as much or more influence on the return on your collegiate investment of time and money as your college does.

Casey in our Marin County, California office pointed out to me today that JFK was onto something. 

“Ask not what your college can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your college.”

Well said.

Avoid the Super Bowl mentality

I love watching Hard Knocks, the HBO series that follows one NFL team through training camp.  It’s a fascinating look at what goes on behind the scenes of a professional football team.  And I’ve noticed that in each of the seven seasons, the coaching staff begins training camp with the same message:

We’re here to win a Super Bowl.  Anything less is unacceptable. 

It makes sense when you’re in the NFL.  Teams spend millions of dollars in pursuit of that one goal.  No team gets a victory parade for finding joy in the game, or working well as a team, or for winning just a few more games than they did last year.  This is the NFL.  If you don’t win the Super Bowl, you lost.  And there are some NFL legends who still regret never achieving that goal with their teams. 

Unfortunately, that’s also how a lot of families approach the college admissions process. 

Some families pick a short list of prestigious colleges and spend the high school years pursuing that goal with the same competitive, win-at-all-costs mentality that it takes to win a Super Bowl.  And while I have absolutely no problem with students dedicating the same focus to their educations that NFL players apply to their jobs, the problem with the Super Bowl mentality is that too many high school students believe if they don’t get accepted to the prestigious college of their dreams, they’ve lost, and all their hard work didn’t pay off. 

That's not healthy, sane, or even true. 

When you work hard in high school, you get smarter.  You learn how to take responsibility for your education.  You develop a work ethic, curiosity and an ability to deal with occasional stress.  All of those things are going to serve you well no matter where you go to—and graduate from—college. 

Unlike the NFL player who comes up short of a Super Bowl, your dream doesn’t die just because a particular college says no. You can go someplace else, have a wonderful college experience, and enjoy a successful, happy life. 

It’s not unusual for a retired NFL player to lament the fact that he never won the Lombardi trophy on Super Bowl Sunday.  But I have never once met an adult who’s still smarting from a college denial they got when they were in high school. 

Commit to your high school years like your future depends on it.  But remember that this is not the Super Bowl.  As long as you put the work in, you can’t lose.

What is the best college in America?

Danny Licht is only seventeen years old. And this article he wrote is one of the most articulate, compelling arguments I’ve ever read about ignoring college rankings and finding the right college for you.  My favorite part:

"The Best College in America does not exist. It's a myth. It would be too easy. Sure, it might be Stanford, as Forbes insists, but Forbes is only guessing. Consider the primary sources — then ask yourself, not Forbes. Forbes doesn't know the best college for you. Google doesn't know. U.S. News & World Report (is that even a real thing?) doesn't know. When you come across posts with titles like this one, remember that you're a person, and that I'm a different person, and that the answer lies only with you."

Take inventory around the barbecue

Parents, while you’re out (hopefully) enjoying your barbecue today, take a mental inventory of your friends and where they went to college.  In fact, you can do this pretty much any time. 

Are those who went to prestigious colleges happier and more successful than those who did not?  Do they have happier marriages and better behaved kids?

Graduates of prestigious schools had to work hard to get there.  And they’ll probably sing the praises of their alma maters like most people do when they look back on their college years. 

But chances are that your Fourth of July barbecue will be full of adults who had to make their way in the world like the rest of us regardless of where they went to school.  Graduates of prestigious colleges don’t get handed better lives any more than graduates of less selective schools are forced to start their lives deep in the end zone. 

I’m about to go spend my Fourth of July with happy, successful, wonderful friends and family members.  My barbecue inventory (not counting the baby and the dog): 

UC Irvine, Colgate, Goddard College, Occidental College, Sarah Lawrence College, UC Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara University.

Happy Fourth!    

It’s not where you go

High school senior Kevin Cao was admitted to Princeton, Stanford and Harvard, but decided to attend the University of Virginia.  So many people in his life were surprised by the decision that he wrote a publicly posted essay entitled, “Why I Chose UVA.”  The press picked up on it, and the attention that followed made Kevin decide to remove his essay from the public eye.  But an article about the essay shared several passages, my favorite being:

“Most of you must think I’m crazy for turning down Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. to go to UVA, but read this letter I wrote explaining my choice and always remember: It’s not about where you go, it’s about what you do while you’re there… And how happy you are!”

That’s a kid who gets it.

Congratulations, Kevin.  And have a great four years at UVA.

Bring your traits with you

My younger brother is a Harvard grad who also rowed for Harvard’s legendary men’s crew coach, Harry Parker.  As my brother pointed out on his blog today, during Harry’s 53 years as a coach at Harvard, he’s had 21 undefeated regular seasons, eight official national championships and eight more unofficial national championships.  He also has a record of 43-7 in the Harvard-Yale race, the oldest collegiate sporting event in the US.

Here’s what Harry says about his role as a coach:


I do is help nurture traits that are already within the rowers.  They
come here, they’re highly motivated, clearly they’re competitive,
they’re smart.  And then what I do consciously or unconsciously is create an
environment that fosters or strengthens those traits.  You have to work
hard.  You have to be responsible.  You have to be accountable.  You
have to have a lot of perseverance.  You have to deal with a lot of

I think that's a great summary of what a highly selective and prestigious school like Harvard does for students. 

Schools like Harvard take students who already have the traits to be successful and give them an opportunity to foster and strengthen those traitsBut students have to work hard.  They have to be responsible.  They have to be accountable.  They'll need a lot of perseverance.  And they'll deal with a lot of frustration. 

It's not always easy or fun.  But their willingness to do it is what will make them successful, not the name of the school on their degree.

Start developing those traits now–hard work, responsibility, accountability, perseverence, and the ability to handle frustration.  Then bring your traits with you to college and work with your school to foster and nurture them.

Who’s rejecting whom?

When the Wall Street Journal published high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss's op-ed, To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me, reaction from the public and from education professionals ranged from praising her for critiquing an irrational process, to calling her an entitled brat.  But one of the most thoughtful responses I've seen came from Jon Boeckenstedt of Depaul.  Here's his blog entry.  Thanks to Casey (and to Laura from Scripps) for forwarding it along.  

Make the choice yourself

I spent last weekend at a friend’s 40th birthday party with a group of happy and successful guys.  Here were their professions (mine included):

Head of a college counseling company
Middle school teacher
Public defender
Director of a middle school
Corporate lawyer
Human resources analyst
Product manager at Microsoft
Green technology program officer
Titan of internet advertising

Here’s where we went to college (not in the same order as the above list):

Sarah Lawrence College
University of Washington (2)
Chapman University
Occidental College
UC Irvine
Goddard College

Can you guess who went where?  If you could correctly identify any match other than for the guy whose bio is linked to this blog, I'd be impressed.  It’s nearly impossible to guess because the name of any college doesn’t determine what you’ll do and how successful you’ll be doing it.  That’s why if you surmised that a titan of anything would have to be the one who went to an Ivy League school, you’d be wrong.

You can’t draw a straight line from the college that accepts you to a happy, successful life after college.  Yes, there are some exceptions, like engineers, journalists and other professionals who picked their colleges and majors based on the careers they knew at age 18 were right for them.  But most successful people got to be that way not by just getting into a famous school, but by taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them during and after college, and continuing to work hard.  

The work you do to get into college is incredibly important.  So is the care you take in picking and applying to your chosen schools.  But who accepts you and who doesn’t—that’s less important.  A college doesn’t get to decide your future for you.  Make that choice yourself.