Why the nice tuba player will be just fine

At 6:45 a.m yesterday as I was finishing my morning run at the local high school’s track, the marching band was just making their way to the field to practice their formations.  And the fact that the entire band was walking out together meant that they’d probably arrived even earlier to rehearse inside first.   It wasn’t even 7 a.m. yet, but there were the clarinetists, flutists, saxophonists, percussionists, and a lone tuba player who looked to be a freshman with a tuba almost as large as he was.  Just a bunch of high school kids happy to be there practicing with the marching band before school.

It’s hard not to be impressed when you see nice kids working hard at things they enjoy.   I feel the same way when I see the cross country team out running together during the summer or the kid working behind the counter at the local In-N-Out Burger after school.  Kids and parents should know that your work ethic, curiosity, how you treat other people, how you commit yourself to things that matter to you—those traits, not the name of the college you attend, are what will determine your future success and happiness. 

If you’re a nice kid who works hard, does your best, and plays a mean tuba in the marching band, you’re going to be just fine whether or not Georgetown says yes.

Bad ways to cut college costs

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Want to avoid college debt? Don’t cut back on the time you spend at college. Instead, pick a school that does not cost so much. President Obama’s new nominee to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, co-authored in 1999 a paper, “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College,” showing that expensive big-name schools add little if any value to a college education. He and co-author Stacy Berg Dale demonstrated that the character traits that bring success — such as persistence and good humor — produce just as much income with a degree from Delaware State as one from Cornell."

Jay Mathews
Bad Ways to Cut College Costs

Going to an elite university does not guarantee success

From the article "10 Reasons to Skip the Expensive Colleges":

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Going to an elite university does not guarantee success.  To prove this point, Hacker and Dreifus tracked the 900-odd students who graduated from Princeton in 1973 to see if the school was delivering on its promise 'to prepare students for positions of leadership,' whether in business, public service, or the arts, which Princeton administrators claim as their goal. 'We were very disappointed,' Hacker says. 'There were only a handful of recognized names in that class of 900. What that tells us is simply this: In America, if you put your talents to their best use, by the age of 35 or 36, you’ll be passing people from Princeton, no matter where you went to school.'"

Put your confidence in the right place

Most students who feel confident about their chances of admission to a highly selective college are putting their confidence in the wrong place.

32,022 kids applied to Stanford last fall.  2,340 got admitted—a 7.3% admit rate. 

Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Duke—all of them have similarly discouraging stats.

So whenever a student tells us that he only wants to apply to “prestigious” colleges, it’s time to confront some brutal facts.  The math doesn’t lie—the odds of admission are not good.  And they don’t improve by simply applying to as many prestigious schools as possible.  Lottery logic doesn’t work here.   

But high achieving students have every right to be confident—you just need to place that confidence someplace else. 

If you’ve taken AP everything, gotten A’s, scored high on the SATs, been successful in your activities and somehow found a way to sleep, breathe and have fun during high school, Stanford doesn't get to decide whether or not you're going to be successful in life.  You should have supreme confidence in yourself, your work ethic, and your likelihood of being successful no matter where you go to college.  You should even have a little swagger.  The people who graduate from schools like Stanford and go on to do great things started down that path to success long before they picked their colleges.

The hardest working and most successful students know that they don’t need to go to prestigious colleges to be successful.  They know they’re going to learn, have fun and keep excelling wherever they go.

So be realistic about your chances of admission.  But be confident in yourself.  You're going places with or without an offer of admission from a prestigious college.

The real reason you should work hard in high school

If you could glimpse your life twenty years from now and see that you’re happy and successful, would you worry less about whether or not the college you’ll go to is a prestigious one?  

I spent yesterday with about 50 of my old UC Irvine friends at an informal reunion, some of whom I haven’t seen since graduation.  If we’d glimpsed our futures 20 years ago, we’d have seen ourselves becoming doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, professors, second-grade teachers, college deans, school principals, computer programmers, bank executives, tech entrepreneurs, marine biologists, moms, dads, PTA members, soccer coaches, people who work for companies called “Facebook” and “Google” and a college admissions counselor who writes something called a “blog.”

Every one of those successful people had a story to tell yesterday that involved hard work and some formative experience in college that helped start them down the path to where they are today. 

If you’re working hard in high school because you think you have to go to an Ivy League school to be successful, you’re working hard for the wrong reasons.  Work hard because you want to be better educated.  Do it because you want opportunities for yourself.  Do it because you know that there aren't any shortcuts.

And most importantly, do it because if you could glimpse your life 20 years from now, it will be your hard work—not the name or prestige of your college—that determines just how successful you’re going to be.

College is worth getting excited about

Does a college need to be prestigious for your family to get excited about it?

Kate over at the Framed Cooks blog has a daughter who’s heading off to college this fall.  And the entire family (including the dog) has been celebrating their soon-to-be college freshman by wearing the college’s clothing, drinking from collegiate water bottles, and even preparing food in the school’s colors. 

The school?  Clemson University.

College is worth getting excited about whether or not it’s an Ivy League school. 

Remember what’s important

Ben Jones was as an application reader and director of communications for the office of admissions at MIT.  He helped launch their admissions blog, one of the first—and still one of the best—of its kind.  One of his most popular entries as a blogger was 50 things he thought, in retrospect, were important to remember as you work your way through college.  Here’s one of the most important:

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In the long run, where you go to college doesn't matter as much as what you do with the opportunities you're given there. The MIT name on your resume won't mean much if that's the only thing on your resume. As a student here, you will have accept to a variety of unique opportunities that no one else will ever have—don't waste them."

That's true no matter where you go to college.  How famous and prestigious your college is (or isn't) won't matter nearly as much as what you do while you're there.

Your outlook is good

Most of my college classmates back in the early 90’s gave the same reason why they picked our school–"Because I didn't get into UCLA."

But there was no anger or disappointment when they said it. We were all happy at our school. Nobody was still smarting from an old rejection. That would have been like a 21 year-old still lamenting a romantic break up that happened back in high school. We’d all moved on.

In fact, of the hundreds of people I met over my four years in college, I only ever knew one who applied to transfer to UCLA, where he was accepted.  I hope it worked out well for him (though Facebook has helped me verify that while he’s doing fine, he isn't any more successful than the rest of us are).

The prospect of college rejection can be a scary thing. But if you think that the only way to live out your vision of what college is supposed to be like is to get accepted to one dream school, well, this is one of those times when you should be thankful that you’re wrong.

Every year, lots of students get rejected from their first choice colleges, especially those students who apply to schools that reject almost everybody who applies. But nobody’s lamenting those rejections when they move into a dorm at a different college later in the fall. Cheer up. Get excited. Your outlook is good.

Isn’t that enough?

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Sometimes MBA-types would ask me, ‘What’s your growth rate?  What’s your retained earnings rate as a percentage of gross?  What are your projections?'  I’d say, 'I have no idea.  I don’t even know what some of that means.  I started this as a hobby to help my friends and that’s the only reason it exists.  There’s money in the bank and I’m doing fine.  So, no worries.'

Never forget why you’re doing what you’re doing.  Are you helping people?  Are they happy?  Are you happy?  Are you profitable?  Isn’t that enough?"

Derek Sivers 
Founder of CDBaby

Here's my college admissions version.

For high school students who want to go to college, never forget why you're doing what you're doing.  You're working hard in school so you'll be educated.  You're doing activities so you can have fun and discover your talents.  You live in the country that has the most coveted and accessible system of higher education in the world, with over 2,000 colleges and only about a hundred that actually reject people.   There is plenty of financial aid available if you apply to the right schools.  You're almost certainly going to college no matter what your GPA and SAT score are.  Wherever you go, you'll be attending an intellectual supermarket where you can learn, explore, discover, meet people and have fun for four years.  And you, not the name of your college, will get to determine just how successful you are after graduation."

Isn't that enough?

Going to college isn’t so special anymore

It’s a rough market out there for recent college grads, with lots them surprised to be washing dishes, working retail, or answering phones for a living.  And while a lot of that is due to a still struggling economy, another reason is one that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention. 

Just having a college degree isn’t so special anymore. 

Fifty years ago, a college degree was a virtual guarantee that you’d be successful because as a college grad, you were joining a small and elite group.  But today, lots of people go to college, many of them to highly selective schools.  Employers have plenty of college grads from which to choose when they’re looking to fill open positions.  So while there is an even bigger ocean of difference between having a degree and not having one today, the world doesn’t just throw great jobs and money towards every college grad.

The answer isn’t to attend more selective colleges (there are plenty of Ivy League grads tending bar right now), and it’s not to get a graduate degree.  The answer is to have a remarkable college career, whatever the college is that you attend.

“Remarkable” means “worthy of notice or attention.”  A lot of college students do enough to get by, they join a club or a fraternity, they have some fun and graduate with a degree four years later.  That’s fine, but it’s not remarkable. 

A remarkable college career means that you leave college with stories to tell about how you made an impact during the last four years, like the intensive research you did with a professor to find an AIDS vaccine, an organization on campus that you led and grew by 200%, or local non-profit where you were instrumental in tripling their fundraising efforts.

You might have counseled a student who was considering suicide during your stint as a resident advisor.  You might have studied abroad in Spain and come back fluent in Spanish.  You might have learned technical skills running the lights for drama productions, fixing computers in the library or working in the mechanical engineering club to build a working submarine.  You might have found an internship, part-time job or other real-world experience to add to your resume.  But whatever it is, you've got a lot more to show for (and tell about) the last four years than just a degree.

Wherever you go to college, you’re going to have four years where all you have to do is learn and have fun.  There will never be another time in your life when you have that much freedom to do some remarkable things while you’re taking classes you want to take and going to some great parties (both of which you should do liberally).

So as a high school student, the pressure shouldn’t be on getting into the most selective school you can get into.  The pressure you should feel is to find the right place where you can be remarkable.