Archives for April 2019

I Have a Brother

Listen to the audio version here.

Chapter 1 

I have a brother.

Like many little boys he grew up playing sports. His favorite was basketball. He practiced and worked hard and dreamed of making the school team. But it didn’t happen.

He wanted to be a leader. He ran for student government several times. Along the way he both won and lost. Ultimately, he became president of our high school.

He studied, did his homework, crammed for tests, and did not cheat, even when those around him took shortcuts. He wanted to be the valedictorian or the salutatorian. But it didn’t happen.

If you are a sophomore or junior reading this: be encouraged that you are still in Chapter 1. Heartbreak, setbacks, and challenges. Every year we read regularly about losses of siblings; parents getting divorces; difficult uprooting moves to different schools, cities or states; breakups; substance abuse problems; discipline issues; severe illnesses, and the list goes on.

These events or periods will always be part of your story. But they do not define you. Rather, they help give you a deeper sense of empathy. They make you a better listener. And they simply demonstrate a fundamental truth — we were made to be in community. We were made to have deep friendships and relationships. My hope is these early experiences, while incredibly tough in the moment, will help you learn now what many struggle with well into adulthood: we must be able to trust others in our weakness and be available to them in theirs.

Chapter 2

I have a brother.

He wanted so badly to attend a particular Ivy League school. It was his dream. It was his top choice. He applied with high hopes and a strong record. But it didn’t happen.

He was admitted to a public school—an incredible campus and community. A place he was excited about. He interviewed for their top merit scholarship, a prestigious award and an elite group. He spent the weekend there, and felt confident about his chances.

He did not receive the scholarship, but chose the school anyway and made the most of it. He wrote for the school paper, joined a number of groups, plugged into the community, and studied abroad. He blazed a path of a new major and befriended professors and students alike. He ran for student office— and lost. He wanted so badly in his final year to receive the honor of living in a special part of campus. But it didn’t happen.

If you are senior reading this: Some of you have been admitted to your first choice university and are excited to get started this fall. Others were denied admission to your top choice. A few have realized your dream college is ultimately not affordable, and you’ve reluctantly put down your deposit to another place. Then there are those of you who ultimately won’t come off the waitlist at your number #1 school.

My hope is regardless of where you are going, you get excited about that place—that community and experience. People will describe college as “some of the best years of your life.” I think hearing that before you go puts unnecessary pressure on you. Instead, I’d say they are unique years. You get the chance to be around a bunch of young, interesting, fun, creative, (insert your preferred adjective here) people who all live close, have free time to be together, and are not juggling as many responsibilities as life typically brings later down the road. And that is amazing! Arrive on campus excited about the uncertainty and committed to exploring.

Regardless of where you are today in your college journey, I have good news— failure awaits, and disappointment and heartbreak are coming. Congratulations! In college you are going to receive some grades that you did not even know existed (read Bs or Cs); someone is going to turn you down for a date, an internship, a research opportunity, or a summer program (hopefully those are separate people for each because that would be weird otherwise). You may learn the major or profession you’ve always wanted to pursue is really not for you. You may end up transferring to a different college. Don’t be dejected. Instead, be thankful. The truth is you don’t learn lessons, or grow or improve, or develop deep friendships and trust when things are totally smooth, comfortable or easy—in fact, the opposite is true.

Chapter 3

I have a brother.

He graduated and moved overseas so he could master the language he’d taken as an undergraduate. Eventually he went to law school and added a second language while there.

He took a position at a prestigious law firm. He worked 100 hour weeks, impressed clients, married a smart, beautiful woman and started a family.

He did not make partner. He was “out-counseled.” He started a company that ultimately failed.

He moved back overseas, practiced law, and eventually started a different company. This one made it.

Anyone reading this who meets my brother today would be impressed. They would see, respect, and admire the accomplishments. They have not heard the pain, seen the tears, or experienced the disappointment. They would not know that along the way he’s also lost a father and a child.

Anyone student reading this should take time to seek out and really listen to a few people you admire. Forget about who they appear to be. Ask them about their almosts, their low points, and their losses. One of the worst things about social media is it allows people to showcase wins and hide their struggles. One of the best things you can do is take time in the months ahead to find someone twice your age and ask them to share it all. They’ll be honored and you’ll be encouraged.

Like all of us, my brother is both perfect and deeply flawed. He’s a failed athlete, an Ivy League reject, a fired employee and an unsuccessful entrepreneur. He’s a tri-lingual attorney turned successful small business owner who lives abroad with his incredible wife and amazing children.

Chapter 4

I have a brother.

We don’t share the same parents. We did not grow up in the same house. Our bond is not blood but rather a lifetime of sharing joy and sorrow—hopes, dreams, setbacks, and progress.

If you are reading this, my hope is you will come to understand and appreciate that success is not a point-to-point trip. A life fully and well-lived is not a straight road. So when you feel like things are falling apart; when you look around and believe “everyone else is happy;” when you question what you did wrong or why something did not work out, my hope is you will remember you are not at a dead-end, or even a U-turn that is forcing you to double back. These are inevitable turns, re-routes, and natural bends in the road you should expect on any journey.

Part of your story is already written. Beginnings are interesting, but incomplete. They are often filled with challenges, setbacks, and difficulty. The beauty is you get to keep writing. No matter where you are today or where you plan to be next year, I hope you will not dwell on what has been but instead commit to explore, attempt, edit, and continually learn.  Get excited about writing your next chapter!

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Burn The Ships!

Listen to the audio version here.

Last week I drove my family back from Florida after spring break. On the way, they watched the movie Hitch. Yes, you heard that correctly. I was driving and my two kids (ages 8 and 10) were watching a movie about a date doctor in New York. Yes, my wife was in the back with them eating chips and Capri Suns and laughing hysterically, having made an exception to her very stringent no PG-13 movie rule. Yes, I understand this is only because she has a huge crush on Will Smith. Yes, it’s a mini-van. Yes, I know I was the sucker on basically every level in this scenario. Can we please move on?!

Fast forward to yesterday when I picked my son up from soccer practice. “How’d it go?”

“I yelled at her. I screamed at my boss! I quit my job!” I literally spit my drink out. The kid’s recall on movie quotes is hysterical.  It’s particularly funny when he busts out quotes first thing in the morning or when I’m talking to him through the bathroom door. Yes, I realize our relationship is… interesting.

This started a back and forth pseudo quote war. While I usually get the gist, it’s amazing how he can recall quotes verbatim in both words and inflection.

Me: “You don’t need no pizza, they got food there.”

Him: “I had a… great time, too, Allegra… with a beard.”

Me: “I’m a guy. Since when do we get anything right the first time?”

But I conceded defeat (plus I was basically out of lines) when he nailed an Albert Brennaman classic from the movie: “I’ve waited my whole life to feel miserable.”

Decision Time

Later, I was thinking about that line a little bit more. “I’ve waited my whole life to feel miserable.” It got me thinking about conversations I’ve had with a lot of high school seniors over the last month. A LOT. Some of these conversations were in person on campus or in high schools. Others were over the phone or email. A few were kids from my neighborhood and surrounding community who I know personally, while others were in states around the country, and several occurred abroad (it’s been a busy April!).

Bottom line—these students had precious little in common except they were all in their final months of high school and on the precipice of making a final college decision.  When it came to making a decision, the most common words they used to describe how they were feeling were uncertain, stressed, and confused. It was almost like they’d “waited their whole life (or at least the last year or so) to feel this miserable.”

If you are still weighing your college options, I hope I can alleviate some of your uncertainty, stress, and confusion with these quick thoughts.

You Get To Choose!

Options and choices can feel overwhelming, but don’t forget that THIS WAS THE GOAL! This decision is not a burden—it is a privilege. It is a blessing. THIS is why you visited schools, researched colleges, and applied to more than just one place. THIS is why you took tough classes, studied, worked hard, and sat through multi-hour standardized tests—to have choices, to have options. You are EXACTLY where you wanted to be! You did this to yourself—and that is a great thing!

If you are still weighing your options this week, you don’t have to decide—you get to decide! You get to think about the place you will thrive and create a lifelong network. You get to talk through your options with your family who loves you, are proud of you, and are excited about this next chapter of your life. You get to do this while finishing high school alongside peers who want to excel and teachers who have always wanted you to learn, grow, and succeed. Don’t be uncertain—you get to do this!

Trust Your Gut

Adam Grant (organizational psychologist/ great follow on Twitter/ Ted Talker/ brilliant dude) said recently, “When people come to you for advice on a decision, resist the urge to give them an answer. People rarely need to hear your conclusion. They benefit from hearing your thought process and your perspective on the relevant criteria for making the choice.” Well, I’ve given you mine over the last few years (see basically all blog entries, specifically Ask GOOD Questions and Ask the Same Questions, Again and Again).

Here is the simultaneously beautiful and disconcerting reality (life in a nutshell) – in the end, only you can make this decision. This is a big deal, for sure. But it is not life or death. This is not about being right or wrong. At the risk of sounding trite: you know you.

As life goes on, you will continue to find closing other doors is never easy. If no one has told you before, I consider it a privilege to be the one to tell you this is the first of many times you will experience these types of choices: relationships, jobs, graduate school, or moving to a new city,  state, or country. Sometimes the hardest part about being talented and wanted, and the most difficult part about having options, is there is not a definitively right answer.

Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best in his 2005 Stanford Commencement address, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” Your goal is to be confident in and excited about your college decision.

Ultimately, the best advice is to trust your gut. That is not a cop out—it’s the truth. You can do this; you need to do this. YOU got this!

Burn the ships!

In 1519, Hernán Cortés sailed to Veracruz, Mexico upon the direction of the King and Queen of Spain, in order to find gold, silver, and a new place to settle. When they arrived, his crew talked incessantly about returning home. They were thinking about home, family, their known life, other places, and an easier path. As they came ashore, Cortes ordered them to “Burn the ships!” Why? So they could not look back, and instead would be fully committed to the expedition.

Once you put down your deposit, that is your job as well. Be all in—buy the t-shirt, put the window decal on the car, start following student groups on social media, donate or trade the shirts you have from other school (don’t go all Cortes here and burn them), close/cancel your applications from other colleges, and start planning on  orientation in the summer.

Don’t look back. You made the right choice. Embrace it. Enjoy the end of your senior year and a well-earned summer. Too many students second guess themselves and spend their summer in angst. Burn. The. Ships!

Final Note: You may find you need to go for a walk, a drive, a run, a treadmill (bear with me), or just sit in the dark as you come to your final choice. To assist our staff put together a “Decision Time” playlist. This is unedited and unfiltered, so enjoy. Good luck! We are excited for you!

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Which Activities Will Make Me Competitive?

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome, Katie!

After reading Samantha’s blog on finding joy in your college search, I realized we were on to a theme. This particular post is not about making your college list, but the same case can be built to reframe how parents and students tackle college admission questions. Maybe it’s because it’s April–the time when countless admission professionals find themselves behind a table at a college fair, standing in the welcome center lobby, or on the phone answering, quite often, some version of the same questions.

Today we’re going to wrestle with this notorious inquiry: “I am (or, my child is) a junior/sophomore/seventh grader/eight years old (I’m not kidding), what extracurriculars should we be doing right now to be competitive?” I answer the same way every time. “To be competitive, you should choose activities that make you happy.” The vast majority of students and parents think I’ve dodged the question. I haven’t. I’ve given the same answer for well over a decade and I’m sticking to it.

Find What Makes You Happy

Maybe that answer is deceptively simple, which is why it’s often dismissed as hedging.  I’m not dodging the question—I’m giving you a framework. Perhaps a “re-framework” as you make big decisions, like should you try out for the travel team, spend the summer in an internship or mission trip, stay a third year in robotics or take that new advanced class offering. Instead, high school students everywhere (and their parents) should ask the same question: does this activity make me happy?

If you are about to dismiss this advice as soft, overly codifying, or unrealistic, wait!  I’m about to let you in on the secret of why admission officers think students who enjoy their activities are more successful in the college application process (and probably life in general).

1 – If you love it, you naturally become more competitive.

The byproducts of doing something you love (in high school or in your professional life) are surprisingly positive.  You don’t have to believe me because there is science to back that up.  Check out Shawn Achor’s research in his book, the Happiness Advantage (no time to read the book? Check out this quick Ted Talk). What he says about business success is also true in the college application process. Joyful participation in high school endeavors has a ripple effect, leading to things such as increasing a club’s membership, finding ways to lead or innovate on projects, resiliency from year to year, providing access to others—essentially all the attributes that stand out to an admission committee when they are reviewing applications. Look at your resume. What activities make you happy?  Do more of those things! Competitiveness will follow.

2 – If you are interested, I’ll be more interested.

Nothing deflates a conversation more than a student trained to rattle off their 4-10 resume activities and then ask me if they are “good.”  Nothing engages me more than a student who tells me, “I love XYZ! I saw online that your college has WXY, do you think that’s a good fit?” This engagement translates to the application itself. Applications fall flat when you are checking off boxes, trying to craft a summary of undertakings that you really don’t enjoy.  Applications have a life and an energy when a student is trying to use every available space to expound on a passion project.  Telling your activities story is more authentic and believable. When seen through this framework, your activities list is no longer a bureaucratic hurdle to get to college, but a written conversation retelling the most meaningful parts of your high school career.

3 – Activities that are difficult can still make you happy.

I said this was not a softball answer and I meant it.  I don’t mean that everything you do in high school should be easy.  Easy and happy are not the same thing. Some of the hardest situations can result in a new-found strength, a renewed focus, a sense that what you are doing has great value because it came at great cost.  That’s when being happy graduates to the big leagues: joy. I am not advising you to quit all your extracurricular activities because binge watching Netflix makes you happy.  Critically look at how you spend your time and ask yourself some serious questions. I have some thoughts below.

As an ode to the KonMari method, this is a KatMattli approved checklist for whether you should or should not keep an activity:

  • Do you feel excited about going to the meeting/practice/session/class?
  • Do you have moments of inspiration about it (Eureka moments!) before you go to sleep at night?
  • Do you talk about what you could do in this club/team next year?
  • Do you try to get appointments with teachers/coaches/sponsors to talk more about it?
  • Are you plotting ways to lead this group next year?
  • Do you want to teach or coach other people who have had less training than you have?
  • Is this project really difficult/challenging, but you are excited to see the finished product?
  • Would you still want do this activity if you couldn’t list it on your college application?

On the flip side…

  • Do you forget about that meeting each week?
  • Do you feel icky walking down the hallway to this meeting/tournament/locker room/classroom?
  • Does it keep you up at night in a bad way?
  • Are you thinking of other activities while you are there?
  • If you didn’t have to fill out a college application, would this club ever see your face again?

I’m holding fast to my original answer: you want your extracurriculars to be competitive? You need to enjoy the activities on your resume.  Are you a freshman in high school and anxious about what clubs to join (which ones colleges will view as “good”)?  Forget about us.  Go enjoy your game/fan group/club/meeting. We will see you in a few years when you are thriving in something you love. Are you a junior in high school? Double down on the activities that bring you the most enjoyment. You will need that stress relief and balance as you hit tougher classes, and I can’t wait to hear about your journey.

And if you are eight years old?  (Where is that astonishment emoji with the big eyes?) I am not discounting you, as it takes maturity to talk to college representatives at your age. But my answer to you is still the same, maybe even more so: Go enjoy yourself.

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Owning YOUR Campus Visit

I had the opportunity to visit Munich, Germany last week. It was a beautiful town. Rich history, amazingly friendly people, and extremely walk-able.

In advance of my trip I got lots of recommendations from friends and colleagues who had visited before. “Definitely go to the Hofbrauhaus;” “Climb the 299 stairs to the top of St. Peter’s;” “Go to the public bathhouse right in the center of town;” “Just be sure you get a pretzel… from anywhere.”

I also asked my e-friends, Siri and Google for “Top Things to do in Munich.” In the end, I hit a few of the “must dos” but also picked the experiences and sites that most interested me. However, some of the most enjoyable moments were actually sitting in the train station, eating in the restaurants, and riding the trams downtown, and going into local grocery stores. Granted I only half understood every fifth word (yes, that’s another way to say roughly 10%), but it was still a great way to observe and appreciate the city’s culture and personality.

I share this with you partly to talk up Bavaria as a possible future vacation or study abroad destination, but more so because April is one of the heaviest campus visit months of the year— as are the summer months that follow.

If you are planning a trip to a college campus soon, I hope you’ll follow these tips:

It’s not all about the Hofbrauhaus

Every person and site listed the Hofbrauhaus. I get it- remarkable place— and definitely a classic city trademark. But if you were to only go there, you’d miss the real heartbeat of the city.

Same thing with campus visits. Yes, you should go to the admission info session and tour. Not for the big brother element of whether they’re going to count it or track it, but because this is where you will get the highlights, hear the key messages, learn some history, understand their unique mission and goals, and see the key iconic buildings and top destinations on campus.

Wander, listen, engage

View from the top of St. Peter’s (after I caught my breath).

Unfortunately, too many people visit campuses and cities the same way. They hit the highlights and follow the crowds or lists. I’m imploring you to break away from the well-traveled path to dig a bit deeper and really feel, see, experience the places students (aka- the locals) spend time.

During my three days in Munich I probably covered a good 20 miles on foot just meandering down the river on trails, taking random turns on city streets, or walking to meetings. Yes, I got a little turned around (my wife insists there’s a difference between that and lost), but it was totally worth it because I was able to stumble on stuff I’d otherwise never have seen. And while my German is what you’d politely label “nicht gut,” walking so much led to some pretty interesting and memorable interactions.

Here is the good news— people on campus want to answer your questions. They want to help you understand what makes their school so great. Make time to wander around, loiter (in a non- threatening way), talk to students, peak in on a class, eavesdrop (we’ve covered this before as a critical life skill).

Listen the conversations around you; observe what students are wearing, discussing, and doing; sit in the student center and pretend to look at your phone or a student newspaper while really glancing about. If you will extend each of your campus visits by just an hour or two and make time for this, you’ll walk away with a much better feel for the place than simply running and gunning from one canned admission talk to the next.

This is YOUR visit

I have read a good bit about the 1972 Olympics and really wanted to see that area. It wasn’t what most people listed and it was not as convenient to my hotel, but it was important to me.

You’ll be spending time, money, and energy to go see these schools. Make the time to see what specifically interests you- the places you think will make up your experience. Get a feel for those areas of campus. A tour guide may simply point out the business school from 200 yards away, but if that’s going to be your major, you need to get there.

The bottom line is you should not simply take what they give you. Own YOUR visit. Are you thinking about playing on the rugby or participating in robotics or doing research or singing in the a cappella group (if all of the above, you are a truly unique individual, my friend)? Get over to the IM fields, reach out to a department advisor, or contact out to the club or group’s advisor in advance of your visit.

Ask YOUR questions

Tour guides are awesome people. They are involved, passionate, and volunteering their time. They are taking you around a place they love, which means they can absolutely wax poetic about campus history or spin yarns about classmates or friends and their adventures in college.

They’ll go into lots of detail on history, facts and interesting information, but they also love to hear and answer your questions. Be proactive and bold enough to ask. Don’t want to interrupt the tour guide or ask publicly? Totally fine. Wait until you’re walking between points or hold your questions until the end and ask privately.

Think about it this way- you are making a decision about where to spend the next four or five years of your life (a time span representing a solid 20-25% of your life to this point). If you are serious about applying to or attending that college, you need to hear first- hand from as many people on that campus as possible about the things that matter to you (students, advisors, faculty, admission reps, etc.) Are their answers similar? What can you learn about the college’s culture based on commonalities?

Too often we hear students say, “Yea. I didn’t apply there because it was raining on my visit.” Or “I just didn’t like what my tour guide was wearing, so I didn’t apply.” Come on, people! You would not want someone to judge your high school or hometown based on one person they met from there, right? Don’t do that to a college that has 5000 or 50,000 on campus. YES, this means working a little harder. Sorry. That’s college, my friends.

I’m challenging you to go with 3-5 questions you really care about and be sure to get those answered while you are there. Can’t think of unique or helpful questions? Here are a few:

  • What has surprised you or disappointed you about this place?
  • What do you wish were different here?
  • What do most people not realize this college is really good at?
  • What makes this place different (not better) than other schools?
  • How has this school changed or shaped you?
  • What has not been asked today that you think is important for everyone to know?

Document, document, document (this is also a good HR lesson, but we’ll save that life advice for another time).

If you are barnstorming through 8 campuses (or 18 campuses) in a week, they’re going to start to blur together:

Where did we see that library that didn’t have any books?

Who was it that said they were adding a program in artificial intelligence?

Was that in Illinois or Indiana where we met the kid who held the national jump roping title?

Take the time during or right after each visit to write (type, bullet point, take pictures, voice record, etc) down your impressions. More of a spreadsheeter? Go ahead and quantify or rate things that matter to you: academic program, quality of food, campus feel, style of tour guide, surrounding community, access to internships. Just get this stuff recorded in some organized manner, so that you can revisit it later.

  • What impressed you about the students?
  • What did you not like about the size or layout of campus?
  • How was the food or coffee?
  • What did the labs look like if you are going to be a bio major?
  • What did they say about internships or co-op opportunities?

Yes, I’m jet lagged and spit balling here (a dangerous combo). Again, you need to have your questions answered and focus on the elements of campus that matter to you.

Last thing

Be nice to the people at the front desk when you are checking in for tours. Sometimes this is a student (could be you in a year or two), sometimes this is the admission counselor who will be reading your file (and they have great memories and a powerful note taking CRM at the ready), sometimes this the director of admission just taking her/his shift at the desk. Bottom line- Don’t be jerk. This can also be applied to baristas, hotel clerks, airline gate agents (bear with me), etc. Golden rule, my friends. Embrace it.

Have fun and travel safe. Enjoy the adventure!