5 Qualities of Successful Students That Have Nothing to do with Intelligence

5 Qualities of Successful Students That Have Nothing to do with Intelligence

successful students planning for college

5 qualities of successful students that have nothing to do with intelligence

I spend most of my waking hours sitting across the table from a high school student. Typically, they have big dreams. And most of them have the determination and pure grit to do what it takes to achieve them.

What distinguishes the students I see succeed is less about smarts and talent than it is about 5 qualities that each of us has the CHOICE to possess.

They’re curious.

They’re teachable.

They’re interested in others.

They can laugh at themselves.

They get back up again.

Successful students are curious.

Educators are well aware of the need for curiosity in learning. In an article I read from Empower 2017, a conference for educators, developmental psychologist Wendy Ostroff said, “The best, deepest learning happens when you’re generally curious.” In Ostroff’s talk, she cited studies that show that pre-K kids (between 2 and 5 years old) ask 76 questions per hour on average. But once children enter formal school, that number drops dramatically. K-1 students ask around 2 to 5 questions per hour, and by 5th grade, questions are virtually absent.

college planning successful student qualities

Successful students are curious

Ostroff advocates modeling curiosity to help students cultivate curiosity. Show them how it’s done. So if I am curious and demonstrate and model curiosity as a parent, this helps my child developcuriosity and learn how to nurture their curiosity and use it to learn new things.

The same article talks about curiosity flowing naturally from the subjects we’re most interested in. This is why one of my first tasks as a college planner is to get to know the student across from me and find out what makes them tick, and then tailor my coaching and even the teaching examples I use, to their interests. It works.

Successful students are curious.At home, this plays out in finding out what makes my sons tick and encouraging them to go deeper on those topics, on their own. When my son Joe asks a question about how he can translate his passion for athletic shoes into a career someday, even if I know the answer, I say, “That’s a really interesting question. I wonder how you could find the answer to that.” And I try to really praise him when I observe him demonstrating curiosity, pursuing the answers to his own questions and finding success in nurturing his own curiosity.

Successful students are teachable.

teachable students college planning

Successful students are teachable.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It’s attributed to Buddha Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni. Opportunities to learn are all around us, but we must be ready to receive the teaching. It starts with humility. In order for me to be teachable, I have to admit that I don’t already know it all.

Some of the students I find to be the most teachable are athletes who are used to paying attention to what their coach has to say. They’re coachable, teachable. They come to the table with an attitude of openness that I have something to offer them that they don’t already know. They’re receptive to new information.

In trying to cultivate teachability in my own sons, I often ask the question straight out, “Are you teachable?” When I’m less patient, it comes out as, “Are you ready to listen, or not?” But on my best dad days, I’m frequently reminding them, gently, that others have lessons to teach them that could benefit them – even those they don’t agree with on everything.

Successful students are interested in others.

college planning successful students

Successful students are interested in others.

Being interested in others goes hand in hand with curiosity, teachability and humility. It’s about maintaining a sense of wonder about the world around me, appreciating that others are different from me and understanding that these differences can enrich my life.

A friend of mine marvels when he asks a teenager, “How are you today?” and the student responds, “I’m doing well. How are you?” It’s sad, but he says that his observation is that this is rare. Much more common is that a teen will respond with a one-word answer, “Good.” With no reciprocal “how are you?” question. Maybe cultivating interest in others simply starts there.

I love working with students who have a passion for working with people who are different from them in some way, whether it’s volunteering or simply extending their friend group beyond people just like them. I love to hear a student describe they’ve pushed past apparent differences to discover something unique and special about another person, and to empathize with their perspective or situation. Empathy is key to cultivating interest in others.

Successful students can laugh at themselves.

successful students planning for college

Successful students can laugh at themselves.

Wow. This one takes courage. Not just for students, but for all of us. I’m working on this one. When I screw up, my first instinct if often to berate myself for the mistake and then shut down and not want to talk about it. I find that the most successful students can laugh at themselves. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re okay with being human and understand that making mistakes and doing dumb things is part of getting better.

At home, this is really tough. Because when my son does something unwise, it triggers fear in me as a parent. Fear can lead me to amp up and try to simply avoid the screw-up from ever happening again, instead of pausing to empathize with my son, “Wow, I’ve sure done that before and it was no fun.” Even make a joke about it, and then ask, “What would you do differently next time?” Or, “What did you learn?” Certainly, I require him to experience the consequences of his own actions. But I try to let the consequences themselves do the teaching, and come alongside him to go easy on himself and laugh at himself as he learns from his own mistakes.

I’ll pick on my wife here, because she said I could. Our son Jack loses things. Keys, paperwork, his wallet, pretty much anything not attached. He inherited this trait from my wife. She admits this openly. And through her being willing to laugh at herself, tell a joke on herself in front of our two sons when she’s just spent an hour looking for the glasses that were on her head the whole time, she gives Jack permission to laugh at himself when he does the same thing. So what used to be a source of family tension has become a private joke between them. Now when Jack loses his keys, he’s much more able to be patient with himself, laugh at himself and say jokingly, “Mom, why’d you pass these genes on to me?!” To me, that’s a good example of cultivating the ability to laugh at yourself.

Successful students get back up again.

planning for college successful students

Successful students get back up again

This is key. The most successful students I see are those who get back up again. It starts with being willing to risk failure. It involves expecting that failure will happen as you try anything new or outside your comfort zone. And it involves being willing to get back up again and keep getting up until you succeed.

I work with students to improve their ACT test scores. In many cases, they’ve already taken the test once, and they didn’t earn the score they’ve hoped for. But they’re willing to try again. They get back up again. There’s nothing more rewarding than celebrating success with a student who’s achieved their goal after multiple attempts. The hard-fought victories are the sweetest, and they teach the student priceless lessons about what they’re truly capable of.

Resilience is essential to success in high school, in college and in life. We do our kids no favors by padding their egos when they deliver less than their best result and letting them stop there.

Listen to the story of any successful entrepreneur or athlete. One of my favorites is the podcast, “How I Built This”. The path of great companies like Whole Foods, Five Guys, Rolling Stone, Barbara Corcoran is littered with false starts, failure and in some cases, not going to or dropping out of college. But they didn’t stop. They got back up again. And their resilience ultimately earned them success. It’s the same in the students I see succeed. They’re willing to risk failure. And they get back up again.

There are a hundred other qualities I observe in successful students, but these five are among the most common that distinguish students who succeed. These qualities have nothing to do with GPA or an ACT score. And they’re qualities that all students, and all of us, can develop the mental, spiritual and psychological muscle to use well.

If you’d like to talk more about how we can work together to help your high-school student to succeed, schedule a Free Consult or email me anytime.

Only you are in charge of your character

Only you are in charge of your character

college applications and social media

Your social media account may say something about your character when you apply to college

You are responsible for and in control of your character.

You can work your tail off throughout high school, earn stellar grades and boost your ACT test scores. You can create the ideal balance of Reach, Target and Safety schools and craft a slam-dunk college essay and whiz-bang college application that captures attention of your top-choice colleges. But at the end of the day, there will still be elements of the college applications process that are beyond your control.

But Character is one thing that is always, ALWAYS within your control both in college planning, and in life. You are 100% responsible for your Character. One source defines character as the way an individual uniquely thinks, feels and behaves. Another suggests that character is, “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual”.

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a person’s character is what they do when no one’s looking.”

colleges may review social media accounts for students

Colleges may pay attention to social media accounts when reviewing student applications

What do you do when no one’s looking, or when you think no one’s looking? What do you say when you think you know who you’re talking to, but you realize later there were others listening in? Or people who caught wind secondhand later on? Social media and the whole digital world makes this whole scene mighty murky, because of powerful buttons that all too easily Share, Forward, Invite, and Screen Shot.

In June, Harvard rescinded offers to 10 incoming freshmen over extremely poor social media decisions which suggested questionable moral character. In a nutshell, the students formed a subgroup online out of Harvard’s Facebook group for incoming freshmen and proceeded to make racially- and sexually explicit comments. The news made national headlines including CNN and Forbes.

So while (sadly) flawless character won’t necessarily guarantee you a spot at the college of your choice, it’s evident that actions which demonstrate questionable character can boot you out.

And this is the part of the story where people shake their fists in the air, demanding protection of free speech, as they did in response to this news story.  Well, perhaps another definition of Character is knowing when having the Freedom to do or say something should be tempered with having the Wisdom not to.

colleges may look at social media accounts

social media matters when applying for colleges

Think it’s just the Ivies who may monitor social media accounts when considering “the whole college candidate”? Think again. A US News & World Reports article earlier this year indicated that “In a Kaplan Test Prep survey of more than 350 college admissions officers in the U.S., 35 percent of officers polled reported having looked at applicants’ social media accounts to learn more about them.”  The article indicates that often visits to social media are a boost to the candidate’s appeal, since it reveals involvement in activities they may not have mentioned in their essay, or beliefs and values that are consistent with the college’s ideals and indicate a good fit. The important point is that more and more colleges are considering social media accounts fair game for considering a candidate’s overall fit with the college. And the same is true for potential employers, so young adults may as well get used to thinking twice about what they post on social media.

It’s wise to exercise extreme caution in conversations both on and offline. Be intentional about what you make public via social media. When in doubt, use the Grandmother Rule. (If you wouldn’t say it to your grandmother, don’t say it in social media.)

Think I’m being extreme? Well there are 10 really flippin’ smart kids who made a dumb move that called their character into question. And now they’re scratching their heads, wondering what they’ll be doing this fall, when they’d figured they’d be headed to Harvard. I’ll bet they don’t think the Grandmother Rule is such a bad idea about now.

So as we wrap up this caution on memes, let me put one to use. Stay classy. Whether you’re in San Diego, Wisconsin or North Dakota. You just never know who’s paying attention.


The college money talk nobody wants to have but everybody should

The college money talk nobody wants to have but everybody should

Talking about college and money has probably edged out sex and drugs on the list of conversations parents LEAST want to have with their teenager. Maybe it’s because there’s no marketing campaign to go with it. So consider this a start toward that end. Parents, have the conversation with your kids about college and money!

college money conversation

Avoiding college planning pitfalls means being willing to have the challenging conversation about college and money, who pays for what and when.

Why do families avoid having the college money conversation? Lots of reasons based on my experience with hundreds upon hundreds of college-bound families.

First off, no one really knows what it will cost. We’ve all heard scary news stories about skyrocketing college costs, but we avoid getting to the bottom of what we’re really talking about here. Is it a hundred grand, or a quarter of a million dollars? How much will merit aid lower the cost? What financial aid might we be eligible for? Families are afraid to have the money talk because they feel completely inept and unprepared.

The people who determine college pricing go to great lengths to prevent you from feeling any sort of comfort about, or command of, the final price. Tuition may be $25,000/year, but you really have no idea what you will pay with everything thrown in. In fairness, great strides have been made by institutions of higher learning (with considerable arm twisting from the federal government) to get you a ballpark figure earlier in the process, using tools such as net price calculators.

In its Trends in College Pricing 2014, the College Board reported that the average estimated budget (often called Cost of Attendance) for an in-state public university is $23,410 for the 2014-15 academic year. For a private non-profit four-year college that number is $46,272.

I have heard the following phrases more than once from intelligent, well-meaning, loving parents to their children:

  • Don’t worry about college costs.
  • We’ll help you however we can.
  • We’ll talk about this later, when the time is right.

A friend once told me she didn’t think it was any of her children’s business what she and her husband were doing to prepare for college expenses, because their financials matters are private. I agree that my kids don’t need to know what we have saved for retirement or how much we earn, but I do believe it is in the best interests of all involved to be transparent about expectations and responsibilities.

One of the most common conversations I have with the families I work with revolves around college costs. So many factors go into what college will cost, not the least of which is which school you choose. We start by breaking down misperceptions, such as “public institutions will always be cheaper than private” (not true), and “we’ll never get any aid, so I’m not even going to fill out the FAFSA”. (Big mistake!) Step by step, we eat the elephant a bite at a time, and examine it for what it really is: a super huge investment that will pay big dividends, if it’s done right.

When it comes to college and money, who pays for what and when?

saving for college decisionsOn or before your child’s 12th birthday, please have this conversation:

“We think it’s important for you to go to college, or at least consider the options you have. So here’s what we’re going to do to help…”

If your child’s older than 12, don’t panic. But have the conversation. SOON.

The answer to this question is incredibly personal. THERE ARE NO WRONG ANSWERS. Don’t avoid having the conversation because of what you assume “most families are doing” or because of your discomfort with what you’re able to do (or unable to do) as a parent to contribute to college costs.

When our oldest son was a toddler, my dear wife and I had a series of conversations about our respective philosophies about paying for our sons’ college education. We had two different philosophies within the same household! My wife insisted we pay for the entire cost of college, including room and board and incidental expenses, because this is what her parents had lovingly and generously done for her.

Then we faced facts about how college costs have changed in the past two decades. And we openly acknowledged that we started having children later in life than her parents, putting us that much closer to retirement, another expensive investment to prepare for.

I then shared my personal feelings that our two sons should have some skin in the game.

Through a lot of dialogue between us, some of it pretty tense, other conversations merely intense, we arrived at a unified position that we could then share with conviction and in detail with our two sons, in plenty of time for them to make their own preparations to put up their share of the costs, or at least make a dent in the first couple of years.

If you ask my boys how much they need to save for college, my older son, who’ll be a college freshman this fall, knows the number to the five-spot. And my younger son, a freshman in high school, at least has a solid idea. He knows what his responsibilities will be, what we’re covering, and a pretty good dollar-amount estimate for each chunk.

Families that fail to address the question of “Who pays for what and when?” risk the collateral damage that is caused by poor communication and the poor planning it leaves in its wake.

Talk openly about college and money and who pays for what and when.

Who. What. When. None of these variables is optional.

Some options could look like this:

  1. “Mom and I will pay for all tuition, fees and books at an in-state public university. Everything beyond that is yours.”
  2. “We will contribute $30,000 per year for four years. If you go somewhere more expensive or take more than four years, you’re responsible for the balance. And no, we will not ‘refund the difference’ if you graduate in three and a half years or choose a very inexpensive option.”
  3. “It’s 50-50 all the way.”
  4. “We’ll pay for everything, but we want you to work at least ten hours per week during college, so you learn how to manage your time, just like in the real world. You can keep what you earn, but you have to work.”

What you’re doing is creating a contract. And it’s acceptable to include a performance clause such as maintaining a 3.0 and making progress towards a degree. Whether or not you put this onto paper is up to you, but the basic premise of “If I do this, I expect you to do that” will go a long way toward eliminating surprises.

Okay, now it’s college money conversation homework time.

college planning critical questions

A Free Guide to Avoid pitfalls like NOT having the college money conversation, plus 5 other Critical Questions and answers.

In your situation, who pays for what & when? Be prepared for open (and at times uncomfortable) dialogue about your desired “contract” and especially the values you hope it conveys to both student and parents (i.e., sharing in the sacrifice, providing the student with ample options, making sure your family can also cover the cost of other family priorities, etc.)


This content is an excerpt from a FREE GUIDE I wrote for parents with college-bound students, called “6 Critical Questions To Avoid Common Pitfalls When Planning for College.” Download the entire guide and get all 6 questions and answers. It’s my gift to you, and I believe you’ll find value in it.

If you’d like help with the college money conversation, or other college topics like ACT test prep, college applications guidance, merit aid, finding the right college and more, Schedule A Free Consult. Let’s get the college conversation started.