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Do your kids know what’s expected of them?

I may preach that kids need to take charge of their college admissions process. But parents, especially those paying the bill, have every right to voice their opinions, including what you expect from your kids when it comes to their education. But are those expectations clear to your kids? That’s a different question than, “Have you made your expectations clear?” You might think that your words and actions communicate clearly to your teen. But what’s clear to you may not be clear to them. And given how much stress can surround the process for the entire family, it’s worth taking the time to make sure you’re on the same page.

For example, you might expect nothing more than their best effort. You might expect that they choose whatever path makes them happy. You might expect that they get admitted to the most competitive college possible, that they take over the family business, or that they make the family proud by becoming the first member to graduate from a four-year college.

But whatever the expectations, the first step to your kids potentially embracing them is to make sure they really understand just what those expectations are.

Here are two past posts, one with my recommended parents’ pledge to high school kids, and a second about the potential value of high expectations when combined with unconditional love.

Just stop doing it

I enjoyed Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. But to me, something about one early passage in particular just didn’t sit right. In 1962 when Knight was first getting the tiny company off the ground, he recalls having this realization while on a run:

“So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea [about starting a shoe company] crazy… just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop. That’s the precocious, prescient, urgent advice I managed to give myself, out of the blue, and somehow managed to take. Half a century later, I believe it’s the best advice—maybe the only advice—any of us should ever give.”

And he kept coming back to that theme repeatedly, pointing to it as the guiding principle, the secret to his success.

We’ve all heard the mantra, “Never give up.” We’re taught not to be quitters, that sheer determination is what separates the people who achieve their goals and those who get left behind.

But here’s the thing that became clear as Knight recounted his story: Nike was successful in large part because Knight was willing to stop.

He stopped working a job as an accountant. Twice.

He stopped working as a professor at Portland State University.

In fact, Knight originally started his shoe company as the American distributor of Tiger brand running shoes manufactured in Japan. The Nike that we all know today only exists because Knight stopped selling the Tiger shoes and began manufacturing his own.

When you’re almost 80 years old, as Knight is, and you look back over your proudest and most significant accomplishments, from entrepreneurship to marriage, you’ll inevitably see a refusal to give up when things were difficult as an important ingredient in the success.

But achieving those milestones will mean letting go of other things that ultimately prove to mean less. Knight was focused, driven, and committed to the work that mattered the most. But he was also a quitter. A smart, tactical quitter. And it helped him and Nike get where they are today.

That’s what kept nagging at me with each passing chapter.

Then, in the final pages of the book, as Knight looks back and ponders the unlikely story of his “crazy idea” growing into Nike, a tale with all the successes enjoyed and the failures overcome, he reflects:

“And those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up? Charlatans. Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop.”

There it is. It’s not necessarily wrong to stop one thing. Sometimes stopping something is the key to succeeding in something else. Just don’t stop permanently.

“Just do it” was a great Nike slogan. But it turns out that “Just stop doing it” can be a pretty effective strategy, too.

Here are a few past posts, here and here, for high school students on the potential value of quitting. And a final one to make sure that you don’t end up punishing the people staying behind when you decide to move on.

Start with an audience of one

That email you’re writing…
That website you’re building…
That flyer you’re creating…
That brochure copy you’re penning…
That t-shirt you’re designing…

Who’s it for?

It’s a good question to ask, and a good person to envision, as you’re making it.

When I sit down to write a blog post, I try to envision exactly who it’s for. Not “parents,” or “students,” or “counselors”—that’s too broad. I want to imagine the one person out there who’s most likely to read and share it.

The parent of a nice B student who’d like some reassurance that there are plenty of great colleges out there for her child, too.

The over-achieving student who needs a reminder that the work will pay off no matter which colleges say yes.

The high school counselor who wants to alert her large caseload of families about upcoming changes in the financial aid process.

Of course, each of those posts will probably appeal to more than one person. But they won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s OK. If it’s good enough, the person each post is written for will share it with people in their tribe who think and act similarly.

It’s impossible to make something that everyone will like. But pleasing one specific person is an attainable goal.

And if your answer to “Who’s it for?” is, “This isn’t for anyone—it’s just for me,” then you’ve got a willing audience of one—yourself! So go make yourself happy with your art, writing, music, reading, learning, etc. and let all the other potential audiences go.

The path to the most receptive audience starts with an audience of one.

Prove the yes’s right

We’re hiring for a number of positions at Collegewise right now, all of which have generated dozens (and dozens) of applications of interest. Some are easy no’s, especially for those people who don’t read our post all the way through, don’t follow directions, and don’t seem to care enough to do more than send the same recycled cover letter and resume. But many more come from highly qualified, interesting, compelling people who could almost certainly make great contributions here. They took the time to get to know us. They cared enough to put together personal materials to show us how and why they’d be a good fit here. They gave thoughtful, honest answers to our interview questions, and asked equally good questions in return.

If we had 5, 10, or 20 positions open, I’d hire many of them. But given the comparatively small number of available positions, in the end, we have to say no to most qualified people who apply. It’s one of the few parts of my job I don’t like.

We’re very good at hiring at Collegewise. We’ve built a process that, from the first read of our “help wanted” ad, all the way to the formal job offer, tends to attract the best fits and repel those who just wouldn’t like working here. We’ve learned how to evaluate materials, how to ask questions that reveal someone’s talents, motivations, and personalities, and how to go with our guts to pick people who will do great things here and make everyone proud to work with them. We’re almost always right about who we pick.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t wrong about the people we don’t pick.

A decision to hire one person is also many decisions not to hire other people. The answer to whether or not we made a good “yes” choice reveals itself. Working with them, watching them in action, seeing them fulfill all the potential we saw in them—it’s a confirmation that we made a good choice.

But we don’t get to confirm those choices we made about people we didn’t hire. We know they’re going to go on to do great things someplace else. But we’ll never know just how great they could have been here.

People are complex. That’s why selecting them—for jobs, for dating, and yes, for college admissions, is not an exact, infallible science. You can look for the right things. You can evaluate thoroughly and thoughtfully. You can give yourself the best chance of making a “yes” choice you’ll be happy about. But even the best systems don’t guarantee you’ll be right about who you pick, or who you don’t pick.

Most admissions offices do a very good job of evaluating their applicants. They’re as thorough as time and opportunity allows them to be. They try to be reasonable and fair with every application. They genuinely want to admit not just the students who are qualified, but also those who are most likely to be happy and to thrive in that college’s particular environment. And they’re usually proven right about who they pick.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right about who they don’t pick. Selective colleges can’t take everyone who applies. Many yes’s will be right, and many no’s will be wrong. The only difference is that the colleges each get to see how their yes’s play out. The no’s will play out somewhere else, likely at another college that had the good fortune and good sense to say yes.

For seniors who are receiving decisions from your colleges, remember that a no doesn’t necessarily mean they made the right choice with you (or the wrong choice with one of their yes’s). It just means that they made a series of difficult choices they had to make.

It might not always seem fair. It might not always seem to make sense. But remember that one college’s decision to say no is also your opportunity to prove one of your yes’s right.

Guidelines for emailing colleges

As juniors begin their college searches in earnest, it’s likely that you’ll have questions as you explore potential schools. And given that many (if not most) colleges will share an email address (usually monitored by the admissions office) where you can send questions, it’s important to remember that there are real people reading your inquiries so that you don’t inadvertently annoy the same people who may later read your application. So here are a few guidelines to start—and keep—you on the right email footing.

Please start with this past post about how to write a good email message. The advice applies to pretty much any email you write to someone who isn’t necessarily a friend or family member.

Then read this one with some more specific advice for emailing colleges.

Those two posts will tell you just about everything you need to know to write what will likely be a refreshingly good email message, and to avoid common mistakes.

But here’s one more tip—please respect their time.

Don’t ask a long list of 10, 12, or 20 questions. I often receive emails like this from people who are considering applying for a job at Collegewise, and it feels like I’m being asked to complete a homework assignment. If you have a question—or two, or maybe even three—ask them. But don’t turn your email into a written interrogation.

Also, try to ask questions that a person who has likely never met you could feasibly answer. Admissions officers know a lot about their colleges, but they likely know nothing about you. That’s why “Would it be better for me to major in biology or physics?” will likely be almost impossible for an admissions officer to answer responsibly. But, “If I would like to double major in biology and physics, would it be appropriate to indicate that on my application?” is a question that’s right in their wheelhouse.

My intention here is not to scare any student off from emailing a college. Don’t worry—you’d have to write something pretty inappropriate, offensive, or scary to actually damage your chances of admission with one or two emails.

But a student who (1) ignores these guidelines, and (2) does so over and over and over again will start to make a bad name for him or herself in the admissions office.

Transparency

I needed to reserve a meeting room for a training I’ll be holding for Collegewisers in Seattle. So I went online and tried to use a popular workspace rental company. Before I clicked “Get a Quote,” I decided to click on the “Terms and Conditions” just to see what I was agreeing to.

Among other things, just asking how much a room costs meant that I was agreeing to:

  • receive telephone calls and text messages, even if I’m on a Do-Not-Call list
  • receive telephone calls for the purpose of marketing
  • receive e-mails
  • receive phone calls placed by an automatic telephone number dialing system
  • receive telephone communications containing pre-recorded messages
  • receive calls from contractors and third-party companies

I can’t imagine someone willingly agreeing to that arrangement, which is exactly why the company hides it, makes it the potential customer’s responsibility to unearth it, and then tricks people into agreeing to it.

Imagine how absurd this would be in our personal lives.

Thanks for asking me to go out on a date with you. If you had taken the time to learn about my terms and conditions, you’d know that you’ve now given me permission to call, text, or email you whenever I feel like it even if you start dating someone else. You’ve also agreed to let my friends, relatives, and even a computer call you on my behalf. And sometimes it won’t even be a real person calling—just a recording of something I, not you, think is important. And you’ve agreed to let me keep doing those things until you fill out a form expressly telling me to stop (at which point I’ll gladly comply in 5-7 business days).

Sound ridiculous? Maybe even a little underhanded and creepy? Yes, and that’s the point.

Spam has become so rampant that too many businesses, colleges, and organizations seem to just accept that it’s OK to engage it. But that’s the classic “Everybody’s doing it!” argument. Your customers deserve better than this. You deserve better than this. Any campaign or tactic that tricks people into doing something is only going to make it harder for them to trust you in the future.

“Transparency” is one of those business clichés that’s completely lost its oomph. But the sentiment is still a good one. Would your business, school, or organization be proud to stand up and say publicly, “Here’s what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it”? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track. But if the answer is no, and even worse, if it’s something you’d feel compelled to hide, that’s a good reason to reconsider.

Look for the teaching moments

One of a parent’s most important goals during the high school years should be to prepare their student for life on his or her own, without managing every decision, challenge, and uncertainty. It’s not that you’ll ever stop being a parent—it’s a lifetime gig and your kids won’t ever stop needing you. But unless you plan on moving into the dorm next door (not a good idea), the roles, both yours and your student’s, are going to change. The high school years are the perfect opportunity to prepare by looking for the teaching moments.

“Can you take care of this?”
The first step is to look for opportunities to stop doing for your kids those things that they could do for themselves. That’s the teaching moment. Start by asking them more questions and to describe what they’re facing. If they’re having trouble in a class and want you to talk to their teacher for them, ask them to tell you more about what kind of trouble they’re having, how long it’s been a problem, and what they’ve tried so far. Questions like these move kids from dropping a situation on your plate–and waiting for you to fix it–to examining what’s facing them. They can’t find the answers if they don’t first learn how to examine the problems.

“What do you think I should do?”
As kids get better at assessing what’s facing them, they’ll move to seeking your advice. “Can you take care of this?” will become, “What do you think I should do?” Instead of just answering the question, use it as a teaching moment. Ask if they’ve tried anything to solve it themselves, and if not, what they’ve considered. Help them think through their options, and explain your thinking, too, as you come up with an answer together. The goal is to move them from asking you for a solution to presenting you with one they found themselves.

“Here’s what I’m going to do.”
As their confidence builds, kids will begin coming to you to share not just a problem, but also their intended solution. It’s a way of checking in to make sure they’re not missing a better option or making an irreversible mistake. The teaching moment presented here is to highlight what they’re doing right, even if you don’t entirely agree with the course of action. If they’re examining the challenge, considering solutions, and showing the initiative to make a choice, they’re on the right path. Remember, the goal isn’t necessarily for them to do everything perfectly the first time. It’s to learn from these experiences, and that means that some lessons will sting more than others. Have faith that while you’re not protecting them from every potential disappointment, you’re setting them up for independence, success, and happiness.

“Here’s what I did.”
Eventually, one of two things will happen. Your kids will either begin coming to you to share how they’ve handled what’s faced them, or they’ll stop sharing updates at all because they’ve learned to take care of those things that formerly resided on your docket. Both scenarios are parental victories. When you do learn of these instances, praise the effort and thinking even if the outcome wasn’t perfect. That’s your teaching moment, and it will only increase their confidence in themselves and their trust that you’re still looking out for them even if you’re no longer their manager, assistant, and publicist.

It’s a process, one that takes faith in your parenting and in your own son or daughter. And like most parts of parenting, there’s no short class to take to learn exactly how to do it. But the good news is that while there may not always be a right answer, there will be plenty of available teaching moments.

Counselors: Try more “Here’s why…”

Counselors guiding students through the college admissions process have to spend a lot of time discussing what, when, and how to do things.

Here’s what you should do this summer…

Here’s when you should sit for the SAT…

Here’s how to plan a college visit…

But if you want your students to be even more engaged, if possible, spend a little less time on the what, when, and how, and a little more time on the why.

Based on what you’ve told me, here’s why a part-time job sounds like the option that would be best for you this summer.

Here’s why taking the SAT this spring will help you make better future testing decisions without sacrificing your time with the swim team…

Here’s why I think visiting these particular colleges will give you a better sense of other schools to potentially add to your list…

Over time, the whys can become so obvious to counselors that we see them as a given. And with both students and parents asking us what, when, and how to do things, we learn that just answering their questions often sends them away satisfied with our guidance.

But families going through this process can become jaded, often feeling like their every decision is measured only by whether or not it satisfied a stated or implied requirement that makes them more college competitive.

That’s what makes the whys so important. The whys rarely stop at, “Because that’s what College X wants.” Whys get to the heart of what’s best for each particular student, not just in terms of getting them closer to college, but also in helping them make decisions that will keep them happy, productive, and engaged. Whys remind students that their high school years shouldn’t only be about satisfying colleges, and that there is almost always some real purpose behind all this college prep.

If you want to help your students be more engaged, try to send them away from your next meeting not just clear about “Here’s what I’m going to do,” but also “Here’s why I’m going to do it.”

How to give better answers to frequently asked questions

Since entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers sold his company, CD Baby, in 2008 for $22M, he’s been inviting—and happily answering—questions over email about business, productivity, and life. After answering a total of 192,000 emails from 78,000 people, Sivers finally announced at the close of 2016 that he was no longer taking questions. But he left his readers and fans with this FAQ page, which I found interesting for two reasons.

1. His FAQs are about the askers, not the answerer.
Too many FAQ sections are actually just promotional material masquerading as frequently requested answers. I’ve never once had a student ask, “What year was College X founded?” Yet I’ve seen that supposed frequently asked question pop up on multiple colleges’ FAQ sections. The same can be said of “What is Y Corporation’s mission?” or “What accolades has Individual Z received?” Sivers isn’t promoting himself at all—in fact, many of the answers really just decline offers for speaking, investing, interviews, etc. Instead, he seems to have chosen the 21 questions that were in fact the most frequently asked. He may be disappointing a lot of people by not personally replying with an answer, but he’s dramatically increased the likelihood that subsequent visitors will actually find the answer they’re looking for.

2. He tries to leave people better off than when they arrived.
Yes, some of his replies are just no’s—he won’t promote your product, he won’t invest in your idea, he won’t be on your podcast (for now). But far more of his responses include recommendations for his favorite book on that topic, helpful advice, or another resource to leave the visitor better off than they would have been with, “That’s too complicated to answer over email,” or even worse, no answer at all. And while the replies aren’t lengthy, I got the sense that many of those answers might be the same that he’d offer to a close friend or family member. Sivers may not be replying personally to each inquiry. But that FAQ page will allow him to help people for a long time.

If you’re a counselor, administrator, teacher, head of an organization, or anyone else who answers many of the same questions over and over again, you likely can’t just stop answering them and let an FAQ do all the work for you. But you could create an FAQ to cut down on your repeat answer performances, and even to extend your service by not making people wait for a helpful reply that could just as easily and effectively have been handled with an FAQ.

Private counselors, what if you took the most common questions potential clients ask and posted an FAQ with honest, direct, helpful answers? “How are you different from your competition?” could include links to your competitors’ websites along with a recommendation that families interview multiple counselors and choose the one that seems to be the best fit. “What type of students do you work with?” could include information not just about your typical student, but also the types of students you don’t typically serve, along with recommendations for where those kids could find good information or support. Imagine the tone this would set for a visitor who’s just arriving at your website and is already being helped before even speaking with you.

High school counselors, what if you picked the 10-20 questions you get most often and posted the most helpful, honest answers you could write, the type you would share if the parent or student were actually a relative? How well-served would your families feel, and more importantly, how much time might you get back to get other work done?

Teachers, what questions do you answer repeatedly from students and parents? You could even turn your answers into mini articles, like, “The best ways to improve your writing,” or “The five best ways to improve your grade in my class,” or “What to do if you need extra help.” Yes, you could still reply to each inquiry and personalize both the message and the advice. But you could also let the article do the work for you when it comes down to repeating the advice that you’ve shared many times before.

Colleges, I’ve even written a past post on how to improve your own FAQ sections.

Good questions deserve good answers. But it’s almost impossible to answer a particular question with the same attention and care the hundredth time as you did the first five times. When those questions cause your energy and enthusiasm to wane, consider adding that query—and the best possible reply—to your “FAQs.” You’ll give better answers, you’ll leave people better off, and you’ll have more time to answer those personal, nuanced questions that aren’t so frequently asked.

Suggested 2017 activity adjustments

One of the most prevalent symptoms of college admissions mania is overscheduling. Too many kids just have too much to do. And while you can’t decide to stop going to school, and you probably shouldn’t decide to stop studying, it’s possible that some of your activities just aren’t adding much to your life. And if they aren’t adding value for you, they won’t bring value to your college applications.

As you begin 2017, I’d encourage every student, especially those freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who may still be exploring and identifying which activities mean the most to them, to evaluate how you are choosing to spend your time and to consider doing less.

I’ve written extensively about the dangers of overscheduling, and the potential value of quitting. So for those who are new or who weren’t readers when these posts went up on the blog, here are a few suggested reads to get you up to speed.

First, a past post on how to evaluate your activities.

Here’s one that illustrates the college admissions risk of overscheduling, and another to help you identify if you’re too busy being busy.

Here are two posts, here and here, on the potential value of quitting, and a third that encourages you to make sure that the benefits of quitting for you don’t become punishments for other people.

Chosen and done right, your extracurricular activities should be among the most enjoyable parts of high school. But getting there can sometimes mean making adjustments. You don’t always know whether or not an activity will make you happy when you start it. So use this fresh start of 2017 to take a look at what you’re doing and decide if you might benefit from making different—or fewer—choices about what to do.