…and then something else

Well, now it’s April, and this year’s college admissions cycle is moving into the final phase. Good luck to those students fortunate to have more than one offer of admission, as they try to decide which college to attend!

While the paucity (SAT word!) of my blog posts this year suggests otherwise, I have in fact been busy writing.  I am pleased to announce that the centerpiece volume in my series of books about college admissions is now available as an e-book, (at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) with a print edition to follow in the coming few weeks.

My book, “College Admissions Without the Crazy” isn’t a traditional how-to/task-oriented guide to the admissions process.  Instead, it is student-oriented, and aims to help students understand why they get stuck as they search for, apply to, and choose a college to attend.  It offers the tools and detailed practical advice students need to get unstuck.  “College Admissions Without the Crazy” also offers advice for parents who want to learn how to best assist their children through this educational, social, and developmental rite of passage — and still be on speaking terms with those children when the process concludes.  I hope you will check it out!

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A few more thoughts on winning, losing, and how we talk about the game

Although I don’t really follow football, it was impossible to escape the pre-game media coverage of the February 2 “Superb Owl,” as Stephen Colbert called it.  Still in the mode of thinking about competition narratives, I tuned into the chatter as various commentators previewed the big game.

By all accounts, this match-up was to be an epic struggle. Praise was heaped on both teams for their performance in the regular season. The big game was billed as a contest between the team with the best offense in the nation (Denver) vs. the team with the best defense in the nation (Seattle). With opponents so well matched, many commentators were at a loss when called upon to predict who would win…let alone what the point spread would be. Even the master statistician and prognosticator Nate Silver (author of The Signal and the Noise, and creator of the FiveThirtyEight blog) wouldn’t venture a prediction.

As game day approached, it seemed to me that when pushed, commentators leaned a little bit toward Denver, citing quarterback Peyton Manning’s greater experience as a tip factor for the win. Frank Bruni’s column “Maturity’s Victories” nicely sums up that line of thought. Moreover, Manning has a compelling comeback story, and I think this made some commentators feel that Denver deserved to win.

Be that as it may, the message from the majority of commentators was this: both teams were extremely strong, and this would be A VERY CLOSE GAME.

Which, of course, it wasn’t. Final score: Seattle 43, Denver 8.

This upset led to really entertaining post-game commentary, in which pretty much every sportscaster was forced to account for the unthinkable, the completely unforeseen, the utter “who’d a thunk it” nature of the outcome.

When listening to the post-game rationales, it occurred to me that those covering the event were in a position similar to one that college counselors sometimes find themselves in when admissions decisions are delivered. Sportscasters were talking about the very talented Peyton Manning in the way that college counselors talk about that outstanding kid in the senior class who looked likely to be admitted to several highly selective colleges…but somehow came up short. The kid had everything going for him – every possible qualification that a college could ask for – and yet, inexplicably, was turned down by the schools you’d think would open their doors for such an accomplished fellow.

I had great sympathy for those sportscasters who struggled to explain why Manning and the Broncos were unable to make headway against Seattle. True, Seattle played a great game, but nothing in the Broncos recent performance predicted that they would be so overwhelmed by the Seahawks that day. But with airtime to fill and audiences wanting to know what the heck happened, the pundits scrambled to make sense of the outcome.

On the other hand, I did not have sympathy for the sportscasters who quickly jumped on the “this ruins everything” bandwagon. Those who floated the idea that this particular loss tarnished the Broncos entire season and ruined Manning’s legacy as a player seemed laughably short-sighted to me. Yes, this was one major (and unfortunately really high profile) loss, but this blow-out didn’t diminish the previous achievements of Manning or the Broncos.

For me, the pre-game and post-game coverage drove home three thorny truths of college counseling, sportscasting, and other professions in which the forecasting of future events plays a part:

1. Unexpected outcomes make us uncomfortable. 

2. We hate being uncomfortable, and we want quick explanations of unexpected events – regardless of the fact that the reliability of the explanation frequently varies inversely with the speed with which it is offered. 

3. When the unexpected outcome occurs, it can trigger what I call a “cognitive eclipse.” This is a situation in which the light of common sense is temporarily obscured by the shock of the outcome. Depending on the event and the magnitude of the shock, it will take a greater or lesser amount of time for participants, commentators and the audience to see the light again and recover a sense of perspective. 

For Peyton Manning, who has had lots of experience winning and losing in the public eye, perspective should be restored pretty quickly.  For that outstanding high school senior, less accustomed to dealing with disappointment in a public forum, it will take longer to regain equilibrium.

Since we’re just about to head into decision season for this year’s admissions cycle, it’s worth noting that the single Super Bowl result doesn’t tarnish Manning’s legacy as a quarterback or mean he’s washed up as an athlete. Similarly, being turned down by a college (or colleges) doesn’t eradicate the previous achievements of that outstanding senior or render him a failure.  Sooner or later, the cognitive eclipse and frantic post-outcome commentary that accompany an unexpected outcome will pass.   Inevitably, today’s headline becomes tomorrow’s footnote.

So although it’s understandable to feel like this when the unexpected (and disappointing) outcome occurs:

Picture from "Motivation" in Allie Brosh's great book: Hyperbole and a Half

Picture from “Motivation” in Allie Brosh’s  book:
Hyperbole and a Half

The best plan is to:

Keep-calm-and-carry-on

And the winner is…

Have you noticed how much competition is going on around us right now? From the Rose Bowl to the pro football playoffs in January we segue to the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in early February. Meanwhile, a new season of “American Idol” is getting underway, and a cavalcade of entertainment award shows — Golden Globes, SAG Awards, People’s Choice Awards, and Grammys, are here to prime our anticipation (or not) for the Oscars in March.

I’m less interested in the outcomes of these various competitions than I am in the way we discuss the competitions themselves. With athletic and artistic contests so prominent these days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between those two types of competition narratives.

Here’s what occurs to me: in a traditional narrative of (non-pharmaceutically enhanced) athletic competition, the individual is acknowledged to have primary control over his or her performance. The disciplined athlete who prepares thoroughly (physically and psychologically) for the event is regarded as the agent of his or her success. In addition, narratives of athletic competition are rife with episodes of the triumph of the human spirit – episodes in which an athlete falling behind is able to “dig deep,” make a supreme effort, and emerge a winner. The essence of the athletic competition narrative is that the individual’s combination of ability (sometimes labeled as talent honed by practice) and effort (sometimes labeled as character or, most commonly right now, “grit”) wins the day. In a contest of equals, the athletic narrative also often refers to the winner as the one who “wants it more,” who has the “eye of the tiger,” and is able to put aside all other commitments in order to attain the prize. The film “Rocky” is a great example of a classic athletic competition narrative.

Ability and effort also matter a great deal in artistic competitions like auditions or award contests, but this realm, it is widely acknowledged that the outcome is quite likely to be subject to factors outside the artist’s control. An actor can “kill” at an audition, but not get the part for any number of reasons. Casting agent Amy Berman discusses this in a blog post titled “26 Reasons Why You Didn’t Get the Part.” Here are a few examples:

* You’re too tall

* You’re too short

* You were the first one to read that day

* You were the last one to read that day

* You look too much like the lead

* You remind the producer of his sister, and he hates his sister

When we stop to think about it, we understand that different types of competition exist and that they have different governing narratives.

Sometimes, though, the nature of a particular competition is unclear. Sometimes, participants enter a contest thinking it is of the athletic, “I’m the agent of my success” type, when in fact the contest is of the artistic, “my ability may be a secondary factor in the outcome” variety.

I thought about this “narrative confusion” recently, as I watched the documentary film “20 Feet from Stardom.” The film (which I highly recommend) looks at the lives of backup singers and the challenges of making the journey from singing backup to being the lead.

Merry Clayton, one of the profiled singers, seemed a sure bet for solo success. She had everything going for her – a fabulous voice, a contract with a top record company, and an outstanding producer who had guided many singers to stardom. She also had a keen desire to be a star – as Darlene Love (another profiled singer) put it: “I think you do, number one, have to have the kill spirit, to really want it. Merry Clayton got the kill spirit.”

And yet, Love continued, “I don’t know why she wasn’t a superstar.”

No one interviewed in the film can say why solo success eluded Merry Clayton. Clayton said that her producer and her record company did a great job promoting her solo albums, and her producer (Lou Adler) echoed this, saying “we did everything possible and it just didn’t take.” There is moment of pathos when Clayton says : “I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

As portrayed in the film, Clayton’s story illustrates a collision between athletic and artistic competition narratives. It seems as though Clayton entered the artistic contest thinking that the athletic narrative applied – she expected that her own talent, effort, and desire would propel her to success. To succeed in an artistic competition, though, you need all that – and more.

As Sting says, a bit later in the film: “It’s not a level playing field, it never is a level playing field…It’s not about fairness, it’s not really about talent. It’s circumstance, it’s luck, it’s destiny – I don’t know what it is.”

Clayton’s lack of success as a solo artist is as inexplicable as a superbly talented student’s “deny” decision from a selective college, and a similar confusion about the nature of the competition applies in each case.

The college admissions process is framed as an arena in which the most critical elements are individual ability and effort, with the result that students enter the process thinking they will have more control over the outcomes than they do. They expect that the path from input (all the elements of the application) to outcome will be as straightforward as an athletic competition.  In fact, the admissions process often resembles more closely an artistic competition, in which the outcome is much less clearly related to the visible input.

That’s a tricky thing to explain, though. Individual ability, effort, and desire surely do have an impact on admissions decisions. But so do many factors beyond the applicant’s control. The admissions process (especially at selective and highly selective colleges) is an odd hybrid of a race and an audition.  This is an especially important point to keep in mind when decisions are received.  Students who, despite their outstanding ability and effort (not to mention an abundance of the “kill spirit”) receive waitlist or deny decisions often feel they have lost the race because of some personal failure.  If they can be encouraged to see the admissions process as more of an audition that didn’t go their way for reasons they couldn’t control, it could save them a measure of heartache.    

As I work with families approaching the college admissions process, I try different ways to help them understand the nature of the competition.  So far, portraying the process partly as a race and partly as an audition has been useful. People seem to relate to those tropes.

With that in mind, the advice Berman offers to actors can be equally relevant for college applicants. Swap the ‘audition and casting’ language for ‘application and assembling a freshman class’ language, and see what you think.  

What you must understand is that your only job in an audition is to do your best work. Everything else is not up to you. The role you are reading for is one piece of an entire jigsaw puzzle. It must fit with the rest of the puzzle or the puzzle won’t work. The casting director, producer, and director are fitting pieces of the puzzle together all day long. Your only job is to be the best “piece” you can be. Whether your edges fit in the slot for that piece is not up to you.

Just go to your audition. Do your best and let it go.”

The “tethered child” applies to college

It’s not new to wonder and worry about the impact that parents have on a child’s college application process. (A whole blog in itself could be devoted to the topic of parental infringement in this area.) But after reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I reconsidered the various tasks (literal and developmental, if you will) involved with the college process and the ways in which they are influenced by the technological “tethering” between children and parents, to use Dr. Turkle’s phrase.

Dr. Turkle, a professor at MIT, has spent the last several decades studying people’s relationships with technology. In Alone Together, the third book in her series, she looks at the way our use of computers, mobile devices and social networking influences our notions of self, privacy, and community. Turkle’s observations, though not focused on the ways in which use of technology influences teenagers working through the college admissions process, are highly relevant.

Turkle believes that our “networked” culture has incurred a shift in our ideas about psychological autonomy. Commenting on behaviors she sees in her students – such as texting parents multiple times each day for input and advice about even the smallest of issues – she notes that this lack of separation from the parents would have appeared as a pathology twenty years ago, but now isn’t perceived as at all unusual. (p. 178-79)

Dr. Turkle cites many examples of the ways in which technology has transformed the process through which children separate from their parents and develop a sense of independence. In a chapter called “Growing up Tethered,” Turkle offers this illustration of the way in which possession of a cell phone alters that process: “there used to be a point for an urban child, an important moment, when there was a first time to navigate the city alone. It was a rite of passage that communicated to children that they were on their own and responsible. If they were frightened, they had to experience those feelings. The cell phone buffers this moment.” (p. 173)

She continues: “In the traditional variant, the child internalizes the adults in his or her world before crossing the threshold of independence. In the modern, technologically tethered variant, parents can be brought along in an intermediate space, such as that created by the cell phone, where everyone important is on speed dial…adolescents don’t face the same pressure to develop the independence we have associated with moving forward into young adulthood.” (p. 173)

It’s often very easy to see “tethering” in practice as a student searches for and applies to colleges, and to see how it reduces a child’s independence. I bet many college counselors have had experiences similar to this: You have a face-to-face meeting with a student to go over some aspect of the college process and answer a question. Within three minutes after the student leaves your office, your phone rings, or a new email arrives. It’s one of the student’s parents, checking in to confirm, ask for clarification, or to refute what you just told the student. In an instant, the parent materialized from the “intermediate space created by the cell phone,” and now you’re dealing with a “we” applying to college, instead of an “I.”

Similarly, filling out and submitting college applications used to be an exercise in the development of independence and self-agency for students. Now, however, the tethered child experiences it as a joint activity, and finds that (though often with the best intentions) parents and others have intervened in ways that undermine his or her ownership of the process. As Turkle observed in other areas of life, technology has abetted this change as well, and has helped to shift the completion and submission of college applications from a solo to a collaborative effort.

Parental over-involvement in the college process predates the technology that enables parents and their children to be in constant contact, but I think our “networked culture” is making this joint participation in the college process a “new normal.” And, as with many technological transformations, it’s a “normal” that we adopted without much consideration of the pros and cons. (Much in the way I upgraded the operating system on my computer before I realized that there were elements of the presentation and functionality of the old system that I strongly preferred!)

By increments, and aided by technology in ways we didn’t necessarily anticipate, I think we’re losing the developmental opportunities that the admissions process presents for students. I view the admissions process as a rite of passage – one that offers lessons in independence, self-confidence, resilience and time management, among other things. Does the technologically “tethered child” still have the opportunity to experience and learn from it in the way previous generations of teenagers did? What is lost when students are increasingly “buffered” from that experience? And what, if anything, can or should we as college admissions professionals do to promote discussion of and reflection on these changes?

The invisible gorilla and the college search

In the late 1990’s, two cognitive psychologists – Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons – conducted a study of visual attentiveness that has since become a landmark in the field. They set a simple task for study participants: watch a short film of people playing with basketballs, and count the number of passes made by the players wearing white.

Try it for yourself before reading further:

 

This study has been replicated many times since it was originally run, under many different conditions, and researchers have found that the results are largely the same. About half of the people who watch the film don’t notice the gorilla.

Chabris and Simon write about this perceptual error, called “inattentional blindness” in their 2010 book, The Invisible Gorilla. Expanding on the results of their study, they conclude:

“we vividly experience some aspects of our world, particularly those that are the focus of our attention. But this rich experience inevitably leads to the erroneous belief that we process all of the detailed information around us. In essence, we know how vividly we see some aspects of our world, but we are completely unaware of those aspects of our world that fall outside that current focus of attention.” (p.7)

The invisible gorilla study has a lot of relevance for the college search process, I believe. Just as selective attention (or inattentional blindness) hinders viewers from seeing the gorilla in the film, inattentional blindness can also hinder students from seeing great college options.

As students begin to get serious about the college search process, most start out with a group of colleges already in mind. They are schools that for one reason or another are already in the student’s field of awareness; they already have the student’s attention. These may be schools that their friends or relatives attend or have attended, or schools that have athletic teams the student follows, for example. As a student begins the college search, one might say that one of the college counselor’s jobs is to expand that student’s field of awareness – to direct his or her attention to other colleges which might be of interest, and to become aware of colleges that previously have been “invisible.”

A college counselor isn’t the only one who can do this, obviously. There are many people and resources in a student’s world to point out previously unnoticed college options. Once a student is in “search mode,” mailings from the Student Search Service, advice from friends, and information gleaned from time spent online (among other resources) can call a student’s attention to a college of which he or she was previously unaware. (Finding a reliable means of securing student attention is an ongoing challenge for college admission offices, never more so than now. That’s a topic for a future post.)

But, here’s where things can become sticky – some students (and parents) are more receptive to broadening their horizons than others. Some families enjoy exploring new options, and when a college they are not familiar with is suggested by a college counselor or discovered through another means, they eagerly follow up and check it out. On the other hand, those who believe a college with a name they don’t recognize isn’t a “good school,” will disregard those suggestions and limit the student’s college search. Those who fall prey to what I call the “familiar = good/unfamiliar = bad” response narrow the field before the exploration has really begun.

Of course, it may reasonably be argued that declining to consider colleges one hasn’t heard of by the time one reaches the junior year in high school won’t harm a student. Sticking with familiar schools is a viable and sometimes desirable option for students and families. Time available for research, financial considerations, and a variety of other factors may make the “tried and true” colleges the best choices for students.

For those who have the desire to (and luxury of) launching a broad college search, though, the process presents a significant learning opportunity. Moving beyond the criteria of familiarity and name recognition in the college search allows students the chance to develop research, comparison, and decision-making skills, and to broaden their self-knowledge. This is an ongoing theme of my blog, so for now, it will suffice to say that being open to the “invisible gorillas” in the college process (I know, not the best image…) can bring positive results.

Once our attention has been called to options outside our usual sphere of awareness, we often find that what was previously an unfamiliar name regularly resurfaces in our world. It happened just that way for student I worked with a few years ago. He told me about his experience, saying that he had never heard of (X) college before I suggested it to him, but once he started looking into it, the name kept coming up over and over. He’d hear references to it at family gatherings, see it mentioned in news articles, and discover that several people in his extended circle of friends and acquaintances had some connection to it.  This previously “invisible” college was out there all the time – it was just a matter of bringing it to his attention.

The work of Chabris and Simon demonstrates the limits of our attention, and their research shows that there “may be important things right in front of you that you aren’t noticing…” They make a strong point that bringing those things into view can help one make better decisions. (p. 241)

Their findings and advice are very apt for the college search process. Allowing room for the unexpected and unfamiliar can broaden and deepen a student’s research in useful ways. And sometimes that invisible gorilla can point the way to a terrific opportunity.

“With a perspective…”

Several years ago, when I lived in the Bay Area and worked at the Head-Royce School, I enjoyed listening to a series called “Perspectives” on KQED, the local public radio station.   Listeners were invited to submit short commentaries about any topic they wished, but there was a big catch: the length limit was two minutes of air time, about 375 words of printed text.  An interesting exercise, and one that made me very sympathetic to students struggling to comply with the length restrictions of their college application essays!

Click here to listen to a piece of mine that was broadcast in 2006.  The theme of the piece is still timely, but the examples of  “hot topics” I mentioned aren’t as relevant now as they were then.  (Does anyone these days even remember the fuss about the  “Brangelina baby?”)

 

Just (can’t) do it: thoughts on completing the college application

As the 2012-2013 college admissions cycle rolls on and as application deadlines draw ever nearer, I’ve been thinking a lot about “DRB,” which is my shorthand for “deadline-related behavior.” It will come as no surprise to anyone that the most common DRB is procrastination. This DRB provokes a lot of stress between high school seniors and their parents, and between students and their college counselors.

Over the years I’ve employed a variety of strategies to help student procrastinators finish their applications and hit “submit” before the deadlines fall. I have a new perspective on procrastination, though, as a result of reading John Perry‘s book “The Art of Procrastination.” Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford and host of the radio program “Philosophy Talk,” has written a book that is humorous and full of insight. I find particularly useful a distinction he draws between two types of procrastination.

The first type is “structured procrastination.” In Perry’s words: “All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things…The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, however, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.” (p. 2-3)

A second type of procrastination can look very much like “structured procrastination,” but it springs from a different source. Perry urges readers not to confuse structured procrastination with procrastination intended to prove to someone that he or she does not control you. (p. 76) Anyone with teenagers in his or her life will be familiar with this type of procrastination, I’m sure. I have labeled this second type “stubborn procrastination.”

If you work with students who have trouble completing their applications, or are the parents of such students and you are wondering how to help them, a bit of triage is in order. Is your student a structured, or stubborn, procrastinator? Once you know which camp they’re in, you can work with them more effectively.

Perry’s book offers a number of tips to help structured procrastinators accomplish their goals, and these translate easily into the realm of college applications. In fact, many college counselors will be familiar with these strategies. Perry notes that structured procrastinators respond well to having the overall task broken down into smaller pieces, and I can certainly vouch for the fact that it helps students to think of the application as a series of distinct and manageable bits, rather than as one overwhelming project. Completing the name, address, and family information section is pretty easy for most students, as is the senior year course selection. As these sections are completed, they can be checked off the list, and this helps build momentum for the more time-consuming sections – the activity roster, essays, and supplements – which in turn can be broken down into their own distinct, smaller tasks.

Perry also advocates the strategic organization of one’s to-do list. At the top, he says, “motivating you to do seemingly less important things will be something that seems of paramount importance but, really, for one reason or another, isn’t that crucial after all.” (p.19) He refers to this as “constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself.” (p.7) Whatever you want to call it, this, too, can be helpful for students who hit roadblocks on the way to completing applications. If there are a few undesirable but important-seeming tasks at the top of the list (cleaning one’s room? bathing the dog? taking a younger sibling to a party at Chuck E. Cheese?) the prospect of completing an application will seem much less onerous (or possibly even desirable) in comparison.

Another of Perry’s tips for the structured procrastinator is to “collaborate with the enemy,” that is, partner up with someone who isn’t a procrastinator, and who can keep you motivated. I know students who have done this successfully when working on classroom assignments, but it’s a more risky strategy when it comes to college applications. The competitive aspects inherent in the admissions process can flare up and negatively color this kind of working partnership, especially if the students have decided to apply to any of the same colleges. This strategy should be used sparingly and with caution when it comes to college applications.

The group I call stubborn procrastinators are challenging for their college counselors – and for their parents! Not to be too psycho-analytical about things, but for these students, procrastination is the visible manifestation of an underlying conflict. Refusing to work on the application is a stand-in for refusing to comply with the (accurately or inaccurately) perceived wishes of someone or something.

Over the years, I have seen many students who refuse to work on their applications just to thwart the wishes of their parents. This often happens when a student and his or her parents disagree about which colleges s/he should apply to. (When parents respond by tightening the screws and prohibiting the student from participating in other activities until the applications are finished, things spiral into disaster pretty quickly.) Other students resist working on their applications because they want to make a stand against “the system,” or because they are afraid they won’t have outcomes as good as those of siblings or friends. I’ve also seen students refuse to work on applications because they don’t feel ready or don’t want to go to college, and they can’t find any other way to get off the conveyor belt that is carrying them in a direction they feel is wrong.

There are, alas, no quick tips for helping the stubborn procrastinator. It takes time, skill, and patience to discover the source of the stubborn procrastinator’s behavior. In these situations, a college counselor often feels more like a family therapist than an educational advisor. And in some cases, meeting with a family therapist is a good step for students and parents who are truly at loggerheads.

(That’s clearly a topic for another post!)

In the meantime, with deadlines looming, I heartily recommend John Perry’s book for its entertaining and informative approach to a topic with which many of us are very familiar.

** Note to college counselors and admissions officers who find it difficult to settle in for a bout of recommendation writing or application reading on the weekends – Perry’s book provides an excellent and educational break from these activities. Call it “professional development.”