Search Results for: potential

Not so lonely at the top

Last Friday, I posted “How you score with people” to remind high school students that the relentless measurement and reward of individual achievement so embedded in the college admissions process isn’t necessarily reflective of what it takes to be successful in the real world. What prompted that post in the first place—and the larger message that I couldn’t fit neatly into that single post—is the growing body of evidence that the people who seem to have  long-term success are those who find a way to help the people around them succeed, too.

Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant lays out a convincing argument in Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Here are two past posts on the book, here and here, and a New York Times story featuring Grant’s work, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

I just finished a preview copy of Harvard psychology researcher Shawn Achor’s Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being. The book’s key message is that while competition and individual achievement leave you disconnected and short of your full potential, connecting with, relating to, and learning from other people leads to long-term success and happiness.

And naysayers who are reluctant to take their eyes off the individual prize might be interested in last weekend’s New York Times opinion piece about the “Shalene Flanagan Effect.” The first American woman to win the New York Marathon in over 40 years, Flanagan has also nurtured and encouraged the growing talent around her with remarkable results—every one of her 11 training partners has qualified for the Olympics.

The article finishes:

“She [Flanagan] is extraordinarily competitive, but not petty; team-oriented, but not deferential. Elevating other women is actually an act of self-interest: It’s not so lonely at the top if you bring others along…So, it was no coincidence that, with the support system she spent years building for herself, it was Flanagan who finally prevailed.”

Fascinating conversations to be had

Parents, here’s a path to having some fascinating conversions with your student.

Replace some questions like these:

How did you do on your math test?
How are your applications coming?
How did your history exam go today?
Can you ask your teacher for extra credit?
Did you hear back from your tutor yet?
Have you done (insert school or activity-related task here) yet?
When do you get the audition results?
Did your scores arrive?
What did your counselor say about your essay?

….with those that have absolutely nothing to do with school, achievement, or college.

Your teen is at school all day long. But they have an entire other life that involves making friends, learning about themselves, and thinking about what they want to be. There’s a rich pool of potential conversations to be had that have nothing to do with school and everything do with this fascinating teenager you’re raising. And those conversations are a lot more interesting than those about tests and GPAs.

Not measured by grades and test scores

In Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or “Fat Envelopes,” author Madeline Levine points out that it’s both unrealistic and unfair to expect our children will excel at everything given that all of us are average at many things. She argues that while parents who celebrate the inherent uniqueness of their kids move their children forward, those who insist on an unrealistic specialness, who argue with teachers or coaches, or who push kids past their limits ultimately hinder their children’s progress.

Here’s her response, as shared in this interview, to a question about how she would respond to a parent who insists that their kids will fall behind and fail to reach their full potential unless a parent pushes or even intervenes with teachers or coaches.

“How do people get to be successful?  Research shows us that the most successful people work really hard, that they have qualities of persistence, resilience, determination, and flexibility.  They have to be bright, but they don’t have to be brilliant.  For example, I went to state university.  This idealization of the Ivy League is misplaced, and I think it’s a defense against the fact that here’s the reality: there’s a bell curve in terms of general intelligence, and most of our kids are going to be average, even if we’re smart ourselves.”

Average in one or more areas does not mean inherently unremarkable. And persistence, resilience, determination, and flexibility aren’t measured by grades and test scores.

For the college vs. just for family

I’m in social—and social media—circles with a lot of parents who, like me, have young kids. And some of those parents don’t quite understand that not everything about their kids is necessarily share-worthy. I know that parents are wired to think everything our kids do is a wonderful combination of brilliant, hilarious, and adorable. But while I am confident that Grandma and Grandpa will happily view any photo or video we share, our unconditional love for our own kids does not necessarily translate into everyone else’s unconditional fascination with the same children. It’s easy to spot those parents who haven’t yet learned to curate their toddler tales, who don’t consider whether or not each share is legitimately interesting to people outside their closest circles.

Parents, are you making the college application version of that mistake with your teens?

Are you insisting that they send copies of awards, articles, or other evidence of their accomplishments?

Are you preparing video or audio recordings of them on the field, in the orchestra, or on the stage?

Are you gathering multiple outside letters of recommendation from sources that know you or the school better than they know your student?

And most importantly, are you doing these things when a college’s application instructions don’t specifically invite or outright require those extra materials?

If so—and I know this is hard to hear—you’re sharing information that is likely far less interesting to the admissions reader than it is to you.

Nobody can possibly appreciate the depths and complexities of all that is wonderful about your kids like you can. But colleges spend a lot of time honing their applications, the questions, and their requests (or lack thereof) of supplemental materials to give them the information they want in exactly the format they prefer. Ignoring those instructions and sending materials that they did not request doesn’t just water down the information they did want; it also runs the risk of annoying the person your student is trying to impress.

I’ll always cheer for parents who celebrate their kids. But the potential penalties of celebration inundation are much higher during the college application process than they are in your social media circles. Give the colleges what they want, but keep everything else just for the family.

Monday morning Q&A: Community service and college admissions

Nicole asks:

“How much weight do schools place on service trips? It seems as if they are reaching an over-saturation point, that I might call ‘excessive volunteering.’ Do colleges see through most of these ‘checkbox’ items on a resume or application?”

Good question, Nicole. This is a tricky subject because a strong argument can be made that volunteering anywhere for any amount of time is a good thing regardless of any purported college admissions impact. But your specific question is about the “weight” schools place on these commitments, so let me focus on that part here.

First, you’re right. Many students are approaching community service hours like checking a box–as if it were a prerequisite for admission. Some high schools even require a minimum number of completed service hours to graduate. But most colleges don’t expect that every successful applicant will have worked at a blood drive or served soup at a homeless shelter. There’s no penalty imposed on students who choose to do other things. What colleges look for is evidence that a student has made both a commitment and an impact doing things he or she cares about. That might be volunteering at a non-profit, teaching illiterate adults to read, or training guide dogs for the blind. But it could also be working at Burger King, playing softball, taking photos for the yearbook or playing the bassoon. Impact can take many forms (more on that here).

So, a student who’s spending the bare minimum time and effort just to rack up some community service hours to list on their application could reasonably consider rededicating that time someplace else without any negative admissions ramifications. If your heart’s not in it, you’re not really giving—and the people you’re serving aren’t really getting—your best self in the name of the cause.

The one potential exception to this rule is if you’re applying to a school whose mission includes serving others. For example, some religiously affiliated colleges expect that an applicant will have dedicated time to her church and embraced the tenet of service. A student who’s chosen to spend the majority of her time in church-related activities that have included serving the less fortunate will likely have an admissions advantage over the student who spent that same time running track and taking art classes. The former student is more likely to accept an offer of admission and to thrive on campus because she’s already demonstrated that she’s aligned with the mission. When in doubt, read your college’s website carefully, as these schools won’t hide what they stand for.

And no matter where you apply, never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are “enough.” That’s like fingernails on the chalkboard to that audience.

Thanks for your question, Nicole. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Counselors: before you deliver your next workshop

One way high school counselors can share admissions information and advice with their community of students, parents, and faculty is to hold a workshop or other group gathering. To make these meetings as valuable as possible for you and for your attendees, consider asking three questions ahead of time.

1. What change are you hoping to make?
There’s no need to bring everyone together just to share information—send an email, write a blog, post the information on your website, etc. and you’ve just saved a lot of time for everyone. When you put people in the room, you’re trying to get them to change in some way. You want them to start filling out applications, to follow the new letter of rec protocol, to write better essays or get over their fear of the FAFSA or think more about college fit than prestige. Identifying ahead of time the change you want to make helps you structure the talk to actually make that change happen. And you need to know where you want your audience to go before you start telling them how and why they should move.

2. How will you know if it worked?
You’re spending time creating this talk, and your audience is spending time to come listen. How will you know if it worked? What signs will you look for as evidence that your talk got the job done? Will you hear from the English teachers that the first drafts of the college essays had improved? Will you have fewer students arriving at your offices three days before holiday break to ask for college admissions advice? Will you increase the number of first-generation students in your senior class who attend college next year? Whether the change you were seeking to make was big or small, identify ahead of time how you’ll decide whether or not your talk actually drove the change you wanted.

3. What will happen if the change does—or does not—take place?
Will there be a reward for attendees who successfully make the change? Will there be a punishment for those who do not? (Hint: potential rewards work better than potential punishments do.) You can’t force people to learn or to do something. They need to want to make the change, and that journey has more gravity when there are consequences attached. So, will students who follow your letter of rec guidelines be given priority? Will you be imposing a strict deadline by which you will no longer be available to answer application-related questions? Will students who’ve submitted all their applications enjoy a stress-free holiday break? Whatever the consequence of making or not making the change, make it clear to the attendees. You need them to do more than just sit through the presentation. You want them enrolled in this journey. And helping them see the benefits or disadvantages based on whether or not they follow your lead will make people more likely to act.

College reps, consider adding these two sentences

It’s travel season for college reps who are heading to college fairs, information nights at high schools, and other events to put their schools in front of (potentially) interested applicants. Unfortunately, many of those earnest reps are hamstrung by the canned spiels that have been approved by some combination of the president’s office and the marketing consultants, usually resulting in a sales pitch to draw in as many applicants as possible.

If you’re a college rep with even a little wiggle room for creativity and straight talk, why not include some version of these two sentences in your next pitch to students?

“If you haven’t yet considered us, here’s why we might be right for you.”

“If you’re already considering us, here’s why we might not be for you.”

Both of these statements move away from the same-as-all-the-others pitches that encourage any student willing to pay the application fee to apply. They force you to think about what actually makes your institution different. And most importantly, they seek not only to attract those applicants who are more likely to actually attend if admitted, but also to repel those who are just never realistically going to call your school home.

It might not boost your total application numbers. But I’ll bet it gets you a more interesting, committed, and engaged freshman class.

Monday morning Q&A: Subject Tests “recommended”?

Jean asks,

“I hear all the time that when a college says that Subject Tests are “recommended,” it actually means “required.” But I’d like to see some actual evidence of that. Do you know of students who’ve been rejected without taking these tests and believed that it hurt them? If a student has a very high GPA, high SAT scores, and all 4’s and 5’s in multiple AP exams, it truly seems like overkill.”

Good question, Jean. I find that “recommending” Subject Tests is frustratingly vague. There’s enough existing confusion in the college admissions process without colleges leaving students unsure whether or not an important choice like this will somehow work against them.

Unfortunately, while I’ve occasionally met students who were not admitted and believed it might have been because they elected not to submit Subject Test scores, I’d be very cautious making a testing decision based on anecdotal evidence. It’s not uncommon for students to draw conclusions about how colleges arrived at an admissions decision, but those conclusions are usually dubious at best. The truth is that the only people who know the actual reasons behind any admissions decisions are the committee members who were in the room when the decision was made. This works both ways, too—students who submit Subject Test scores and are ultimately admitted have no way of knowing if or how much those scores helped.

But here’s a potentially good strategy to use.

1. First, read the testing requirements on the school’s website very carefully.

For example, based on the language I’ve pasted here from their websites, which of these schools seems to mean “required” when they say “recommended”?

Georgetown (the typos are as they appeared on the site):

It is strongly recommended that all candidates, whether they have taken the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT, submit three SAT Subject Tests scores. The scores from writing portion on the SAT Reasoning Test and the optional writing portion of the ACT will not be used in place of a Subject Test.

Stanford:

SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be at a disadvantage. Because SAT Subject Tests are optional, applicants may use Score Choice to selectively send their SAT Subject Test scores.

Yale:

SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be disadvantaged in the application process. We will consider your application on the basis of the other testing, and all the other information, that we receive with your application. You may wish to consider whether there are particular areas of academic strength you would like to demonstrate to the Admissions Committee. Subject Tests can be one way to convey that strength. 

While Stanford and Yale come out and say that a lack of Subject Test scores won’t be held against an applicant, Georgetown’s language reads to me like a student would have a hard time getting admitted without those scores.

2. How strong is the student relative to the others in the college’s applicant pool?

A student with a very high GPA, high SAT scores, and all 4’s and 5’s in multiple AP exams (as you described in your question) is likely already a very strong candidate at Lafayette, University of Delaware, and University of Georgia, all of which recommend but do not require Subject Tests. But that same student is not a strong candidate at Caltech, Duke, or Penn, where even valedictorians and students with perfect test scores are routinely turned away.

3. And finally, have your student ask, “If I don’t submit Subject Test scores and ultimately am not admitted, will I regret that choice?”

I am all for a student opting out of the testing craze. If your student were to decide that the testing is, in fact, overkill, that she’s simply not going to play that game, and that she would happily attend another college if one of those on the “recommended but not required” list said no, I would stand up and cheer.

But if she wants to know that she did everything she possibly could have done to gain admission to particular schools, and if she’s proven to have both smarts and the test-taking gene (which it sounds like she does), I’d probably have her submit those scores. Many of the schools that have this “recommended” Subject Test policy are among the most selective in the country (Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Princeton, etc.). Those are schools that ultimately need to find reasons to say no to droves of applicants. If a student really wants to attend one of those schools, be careful making any testing decision that could give them that reason.

Thanks for your question, Jean. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

What kind of meeting will this be?

The colleagues at Collegewise who know me best know never to send me an email like this.

Kevin, could you and I schedule an hour of time to chat in the next few days? I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.

All that does is conjure up images in my mind of potential agendas, none of which are positive.

Somebody is leaving Collegewise.

Somebody really let down a customer who’s now upset.

Somebody has contracted the Bubonic plague, etc.

I know this is entirely my fault and that it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way (after all, I could just as easily think, This is probably going to be something great!) And in fact, those vague requests almost never lead to conversations that were as bad as I imagined they could be. But I always appreciate when someone gives me a 1-2 sentence preview of what this conversation will be about, so my mind doesn’t spin from now until the conversation. And I can even start thinking productively about how to make the meeting worth our time.

Given (1) how often students, parents, counselors, and teachers might be emailing each other, and (2) how many of those emails involve a request for a conversation or an actual meeting, it’s worth considering how the request itself colors the recipient’s perception of the impending meeting.

Do you want the meeting to be one that they actively dread? One that they worry could be bad but aren’t yet sure of? One that they’re tentatively encouraged by? Or one that they can actively look forward to and even begin considering how to best help you with your request?

For example, everything about this request leaves the recipient certain that this will not be a pleasant meeting:

We were extremely disappointed to learn that our son will not be placed in AP US History next year. He is a top student and this is completely unacceptable. Please contact us at your earliest convenience so we can address this with you.

And this sounds like a meeting that could go either way:

Are you available to meet this week about our son’s course schedule? We have some concerns we’d like to discuss.

This meeting could be positive:

Our son just informed us that he will not be placed in AP US History next year. We were hoping we could meet with you to get your feedback and to discuss his options, as we don’t want to make any crucial mistakes.

And this meeting sounds like an entirely positive one:

Our son just informed us that he will not be placed in AP US History next year, which certainly didn’t come as a surprise as we know that history was not his strongest subject last semester. But we want to make sure that we aren’t overlooking any available options that might help rectify this. And if there aren’t, we’d love your advice about the best course schedule for him given his college goals.

The way you ask for a meeting affects the likelihood that the meeting itself will be productive.

Bonus tip: Asking for “advice” is almost always a good way to open up meeting possibilities.

One last bonus tip: This goes best when the student, not the parent, sends the email.

Guaranteed return?

Students, as you progress through high school and prepare to apply to college, one question worth asking about the ways you’re choosing to spend your time might be, “Does this investment have a guaranteed return?”

This class, this activity, this opportunity or experience, is it guaranteed to pay you back in some way?

Will it make you happier? Will it make you smarter? Will it help you learn, grow, and discover or enhance your talents? Will it challenge or push you? Will it help you or others? Will it earn you money, credibility, or trust? Will you learn to work with people, to manage complex projects, or to lead?

Or will the only acceptable return be an admission to a college of your choice?

Those two categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s say you’re stronger in your English and social studies classes than you are in the sciences, but you enroll in AP Chemistry anyway because you want to show colleges you’re challenging yourself. For many students, there’s a guaranteed return on that investment whether or not your dream college ends up saying yes. Challenging yourself is good as long as it doesn’t leave you burned out or miserable. And taking AP Chemistry will be like a workout for your brain. The experience will leave you smarter and more prepared for the academics in (any) college. And it might even boost your confidence, too.

But that activity you’re doing that you don’t enjoy, that you don’t really pour your heart into, that you’re really just going through the motions so you can list it on your college application, where’s the guaranteed return?

That summer program you really don’t want to attend but resolved to do because you’ve heard it will look good to colleges, is there a guaranteed return on that investment?

Those community service projects where you’re just showing up to do the bare minimum until you get your 10 or 30 or 100 hours you want to cite on your college application, is that minimal effort actually doing any good for the people, the organization, or yourself?

I’ve never met a student who actually enjoys test prep, and it certainly won’t teach you anything useful other than how to take a standardized test. But there’s a potential guaranteed return if you balance your college list beyond those schools that are reaches for you. Higher test scores will make you more admissible to many (though certainly not all) colleges.

If you don’t see a guaranteed return in what you’re doing, maybe you need a new way of spending your time, a new goal, or both.