Bill Gates said, “Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not.” Whether a headline is good or bad news, Gates is right. You won’t buy a newspaper or click the link to a story about a company’s marginally noticeable process improvement, or about an athlete’s long and arduous journey in daily detail from underdog to middle of the pack.
Here are five headlines won’t generate clicks, or sell books or newspapers.
How To Succeed In One Million(or More) Difficult Steps
Work Up To Average, and Keep On Going: A Slowcooker’s Guide to Progress
Exercise More, Eat Less & Stop Expecting a Miracle to Happen: The Realist’s Guide to Slow Weight Management Over the Long Haul
Reduce Debt Over the Long Haul By Living Within Your Means and Not Buying Stuff You Can’t Afford
The Zero-Guarantees Parenting Method: Even if you Parent Right, Things Can Still Go Horribly Wrong
Perseverance isn’t sexy, but it’s the only thing I’ve found that actually works (most of the time).
There is no magic pill.
High school students come to OnCampus College Planning to raise their ACT scores, find the right college or write a great essay for a college application. We coach them, teach critical strategies, share information, equip them with an action plan and send them out with new skills and whatever motivation we can offer. I wish we had a magic pill that would eliminate the hard work, perseverance and commitment it will take on their part to put those insights to work.
Ultimately, though, they have to really work at it on their own, or it’s just going through the motions. There is no magic pill.
Getting better is better than just getting done.
Around here, we often say, “Getting better is better than just getting done.”
I perform my best when I’m invested in the process (and not just the product) of continual improvement. I must embrace the reality that achieving my goals is about discipline over time, not about finding the right shortcut.
I’ve done too many things in life where I’m doing it just to check off the box, but I haven’t really pushed myself to get better. When I’m tired and tempted to get into check-box mode, I try to dig down and think “What can I do right now to get me one inch closer to where I want to be?” I try to share this philosophy with our students. My hope is that the lessons we share during the college planning process are lessons students can apply in other areas of their life.
When it comes to college planning, I want students to give every little step of the process their all — not for me — for THEM. The work is not for my benefit. It’s for their benefit. Participation in sports, music, theater, clubs, academics, friendships, part-time jobs…all of these things present opportunities to build a part of you that adds up to something bigger.
Each student is on a journey.
We as the adults who love them tend to get focused on all the individual assignments, events, games and tasks. We lose sight of how everything should and could be part of a journey…from the person they are now to the person they want to be.
I could have easily skipped the long walk I penciled in for early this morning. That one walk didn’t really change anything, but it felt good. I know if I keep at it, it will begin to add up as I do more and more. I’m not focused on crossing the finish line. I’m just focused on getting better.
Parents, too, have to focus on getting better — not just getting done.
As parents, it requires discipline to stick to this. Especially when it comes to tough lessons in life, like perseverance, patience, long-suffering or managing expectations. Especially when our child’s in pain. MOSTLY when things aren’t going according to “PLAN” — ours or theirs — and we want to “fix it”. But sometimes if we rush in to fix it or join our kids in the goal to simply “be done”, we miss the lessons of the process. As a dad, I can relate to the desire to rush my sons through tough spots, because being done with the tough stuff is way less painful and more comfortable (for them and for me) than slogging through it and accepting our current reality. Sometimes when I find the strongest urges to “just be done” is precisely the moment that if I pause and resist that urge, I’ll gain the most from working on “just getting better”. Life’s funny that way. It sucks sometimes, too. But hindsight’s taught me this is true both for me and for my kids.
I’m trying to be kinder and gentler with myself as I work on getting better at things that are important to me in life. I’m trying to do the same with our two sons.
I take great joy in watching a student say, as one junior did recently, “Hey this is still hard, but it’s not as hard as it was yesterday. I’m not perfect, but I’m getting better.” To me, that IS a headline.
Barack Obama once said, “If you’re walking down the right path, and you’re willing to keep on walking, eventually you’ll make progress.” Wise words from someone who knows.
I’ve been at this college planning gig for more than 10 years, and I continue to see the same themes over and over again. I find this reassuring because it means that sometimes, what feels uncomfortable and worrisome, and maybe even hopeless, is actually normal. I also have two sons of my own, one in college and one a senior in high school. I’m experiencing firsthand the “messy middle” of being a college-bound student and parent.
I’m learning to be grateful in the middle, both at home and with each and every amazing student I get to work with on the college planning process. Often the difference between gratitude and frustration isn’t a change in circumstances, but a change in perspective. Have you noticed that sometimes the circumstance doesn’t change, but you change and that changes everything? It’s kind of like that.
In my line of work, I have the privilege of getting to peer behind the curtain and get a glimpse into the rather messy, humbling and chaotic parts of a college-bound student’s life. And that is truly a gift. When I have the privilege of seeing the beginning and middle of the process, I can truly appreciate the glorious final outcome. The struggle bears gifts of its own, regardless of the result. It just takes time to recognize what those gifts were. As they say, hindsight’s 20/20.
My In-The-Middle Gratitude List as a College Planner
I’m grateful for Authenticity.
When students come to me, it’s because they don’t have it all figured out. Guess what. No one does! But not everyone will admit it to themselves. Even fewer will admit it to another person. It’s a blessed person who can openly say “I don’t get it.” I’m grateful that I get to be the guy who says, “No one does. It’s confusing. That’s why you’re confused.” Or “It’s hard. That’s why you’re struggling.” And then, “But I can help you. Together we can do this.” And I get to watch the relief wash over their faces because now that we’ve been Authentic and we know what we don’t know, we can make some forward progress.
I’m grateful for first drafts.
We’ve helped students with hundreds of college essays, and here’s what I know. No one goes straight from concept to final, single-spaced, typed and polished final product without a few messy first drafts. The benefit of first drafts is that they reveal where work is needed. They’re about getting a sketchy view of your story, and then stepping back for a few minutes and pondering what the real story behind the story is. Usually, students discover something about themselves between first draft and final essay that they didn’t know before, or that wasn’t as clear as it is now. And it is a privilege and a joy to witness that discovery process. If all of us could learn to appreciate first drafts or first attempts for the messy, sketchy teachers they are, we’d probably all be a lot better off.
I’m grateful for getting off topic.
Typically our ACT Test Prep or College Search sessions with students are incredibly focused and productive. They’re jam-packed with tasks we’ve both agreed are priority number one. But some days we get off topic. On more than one occasion, I’ve had the experience where I can tell a student’s had a particularly rough day, or they’re feeling stuck, or they’re feeling inept. Or the whole big jumbled process of planning for college is weighing them down. And then we take a break, and we get off topic. I share some relatively inane story about when I was a high school student and felt the same way. Or we watch a funny YouTube video as a mental breather. Or I ask them about something they’re passionate about that has nothing to do with college. And in these moments, we meet each other, human-to-human, and we truly connect. Perhaps we didn’t clip through the agenda as quickly as we will the next meeting, but the off-topic moments build trust and build relationship. They’re just as critical to the process as checking things off the to do list. This is true for all of us in all of our relationships. When I can let go of my agenda and let the conversation go off topic, there’s no telling what I’ll learn in those unplanned, “unproductive” moments.
I’m grateful for failure.
Sometimes students forget appointments. Sometimes they fall short of their goal ACT score. Sometimes they forget to do the assignment I gave them. Sometimes they give me some pitiful excuse for why they didn’t have time to study or write that essay or do that research. Sometimes students just come up short. Don’t we all? My usual approach in these instances is honesty combined with grace. I don’t let them off the hook, but I don’t beat them up about it either. Because I know from my own failures in life that failure is its own best teacher. The worse the failure, the less likely I am to let that happen again. So I try harder next time. In working with students, nothing gives me greater joy than watching kids learn from their own mistakes, on their own time. I work with kids in their formative years, when they’re making huge strides in maturity, responsibility, intelligence, independence. BIG STUFF. I’ve learned that if I can stand failure and not shrink away from it, I can learn from it. And my students are learning the same thing. It is a joy to get to witness this lesson in real life.
These are just a few of the things I’m grateful for about the messy middle.
I can’t believe I get to wake every morning and do what I do, and work with the amazing people I work with. And be part of one of the most important phases of a young adult’s life. How did I get to be so blessed? To those of you who’ve entrusted your college planning process to my help, thank you for making me one of the luckiest men alive. Can’t wait to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.
Blessings to you and yours this Thanksgiving. If your middle is particularly messy right now and kind of uncomfortable, and not altogether pleasant, may you take comfort in knowing you’re more normal than you think you are. One day, the gifts of the struggle you’re in will become clear. I truly believe that. I’ve seen it over and over again, in my work and in my life.
After more than a decade working with college-bound students and families, we’ve heard time and time again some of the most common fears about finding the right college. Here, we’ll spell out these fears and talk about how best to overcome them. You’re not alone in struggling with these common fears about finding the right college. Hopefully, you’ll feel a bit more at ease knowing you’re “normal”. And there’s a remedy to help overcome these fears.
What are the three biggest fears about finding the right college?
College Fear #1 “I’m not good enough.”
Bet you thought you were the only one who felt this way. Truth is, this is a big one. We hear versions of this all the time. It may also sound like this, “I’m not as good as so and so.” Parents, who can relate to their student feeling this way? Maybe you as a parent feel this way? Students may not always say this out loud, but we often hear from parents that this is a nagging feeling their student has, and it’s weighing them down.
Comparison kills contentment.
The problem is that there’s too much comparison. Comparison kills contentment. When you hear what someone else is doing or the colleges they’re looking at or what they want to major in, you think, “Wow, they have it all figured out. What’s wrong with me?” When Nancy Know-It-All shares her perfect ACT score and you’re staring at your less-than-stellar scores, you think, “I’ll never measure up.”
Stop yourself. Measure up to what? The only path you need to run is your own. Who cares what anyone else is doing? What counts is what’s right for YOU. If you’re concerned about how your options and progress stack up against those of your friends, you’re using the wrong measuring stick. You’re comparing your insides to other people’s outsides, meaning you’re comparing all your internal insecurities, thoughts and doubts to the edited, varnished, filtered life story that others present on the outside.
Use the right measuring stick.
Believe it or not, they, too, have their own self-doubts, challenges and deficiencies. How do I know this? Because this is true for every single human in the world. Other people are the wrong measuring stick. The right measuring stick is getting absolutely clear about what YOU need/want/don’t need/don’t want in your ideal college experience. (We call this the University of You™). Forget what everyone else is doing. Fix your focus on what you can control and what is your responsibility and your path. You’re not responsible for anyone else’s actions or aspirations, only yours. Chasing what someone else thinks is important won’t get you closer to what will ultimately be right for you. You are unique.
Our College Search services zero in on finding the University of You™, not the University of Them. We find that once students invest some time in self-discovery and can articulate what they need/want/don’t need/don’t want in the ideal college experience FOR THEM, they can then then use those insights to define their unique University of You™. They can then focus on their path versus what everyone else is doing. Plus, finding the right college options gets much clearer and easier. Once you know what you’re shopping for, it becomes much easier to know where to look. You can schedule a Free Consult in person or via video conference to learn more about College Search services to help you ditch the constant comparison and find clarity.
College Fear #2 “I’m going to make a big mistake.”
The path to college is fraught with fear of stepping in the mud. Parents feel this way all the time. Teens often feel this way, too. Consider this. Where do you get your information about college? If you watch the news, no wonder you’re freaked out. Most of what you hear in the media about college is all bad. There’s way too much scary, bad news out there about college. It’s nowhere near the whole truth, but it sure sells ad space, clicks and newspapers. We can all relate to hearing about college admissions scandals, crippling college debt, high transfer rates, low 4-year graduation rates and jobless, debt-ridden college graduates. It’s enough to make you want to hide under the covers and wait out the storm.
Ditch information overload for clarity and structure.
The problem is too much information and not enough structure. There’s no shortage of information about college out there. It’s so much that it can be overwhelming. And not all of the information out there is reliable. Turn a deaf ear to the masses of information and zero in on sources of clear direction that will help you get where you want to go.
We believe that the antidote to fear of making a huge mistake is to have a clear plan, timeline and method for adding the right colleges to your shopping cart so that you know exactly what to do and when. When you have a plan, you can tune out 99% of the noise and just run your race. One outstanding example is a family we’re working with in Minnesota. This student is a junior now. We started working together when she was a sophomore. We sat down and mapped out an action plan and timeline for key tasks by semester that made college planning work clear, easy and manageable. In the spring of her sophomore year, this student and her family spent their spring break touring colleges. This gave them a great sense early on for what does and doesn’t fit. It also made it really clear what standardized test scores and grades she would need to earn admission to her top-choice schools. That has provided a ton of focus for her junior year for schoolwork and ACT test prep.
This family has learned the value of starting early, making an action plan, having a method and tuning out all information but the clear, reliable information that will help them on their college path.
College Fear #3 “I’m going to get ripped off.”
This super common fear is kind of a Dad thing. Dads, can you relate?? It sounds like, “With our luck, we’re going to get stuck paying way too much for a crappy college, and in the end, it won’t get us where we want to go.” Or simply, “We’re going to go broke paying for college.” Or, “We’re going to miss out on some secret deal that everyone else knows about, and we’ll be suckers.”
Ignore the hype. Focus on key insights.
The problem is too much hype and not enough insight. There’s a lot of hype about college costs. And we each have that friend who goes on and on about the all-expenses-paid scholarship their kid earned, leaving us feeling like a chump. We can end up feeling like we’re on the outside looking in, bound to pay more than we would have if we would have known the secret.
Here’s the thing. There are ways to control college costs, but it’s not obvious and requires some digging. College costs are a little bit like airline tickets. The true cost you’ll pay isn’t obvious or transparent. It depends on where you’re going and what you bring to the table. Finding trustworthy information sources and reliable insights on the true cost of college as well as ways you can save money will help keep this common fear at bay.
For example, merit aid is one key strategy we discuss when helping parents and students get control of college costs. We talked recently with a family and mentioned merit aid and how it impacts college costs. They’d never heard the term “merit aid” before, and it was a game changer. Merit aid is not dependent upon financial need. It depends on your academic achievements and standardized test scores, and it differs from school to school. We specialize in helping students and families find hidden gems and high-value colleges that will reward you for your academic and other achievements.
Dads especially love feeling like they’re the one that got the killer deal for a change. And why pay more than you have to?
What do I do next to find the right college for me?
If you can relate to any (or all) of these common fears about finding the right college, we have good news. We can help. We have a University of You College Search method to find the best-fit colleges for you, and we can also help you get command of college costs and find better value for your college dollar. Schedule a free consult in person (in the Madison, WI area) or via video conference. LIKE us on Facebook and tune in to our free Facebook Live videos for free insights on a successful path to the college of your dreams.
First, let’s review the three key goals for ANY college campus visit:
Learn more about the specific college you’re visiting. Yeah, obvious, I know.
Learn more about that specific “type” of college (large, public research university or a small, liberal arts college, medium-private university) Once you’ve visited one large, public research university, you’ll have a better sense of whether that “type” of school is right for you and whether or not you should visit more colleges like that one.
Learn more about College in general and build on the University of You definition. By “University of You™”, we mean what you Need/Want/Don’t Need/Don’t Want in your own ideal college experience. For more about the University of You and how to define yours, schedule a free consult with us anytime! If you’re in the Madison, Wisconsin area, you can do this in person at our office, or for those in other parts of the country, we do this via video conference as well.
Every college campus visit you take helps you accomplish these three key goals. In that sense, there is no such thing as a “bad college visit”, even if what you learn is, “that college isn’t for me.” Or “That typeof college isn’t for me”. The more college campuses you visit, the more you’ll learn what makes a college a good fit or a bad fit for you. The more colleges you visit, the smarter you’ll be when it comes time to build your college shopping cart.
The Main Problem With Most College Campus Visits
When I tour college campuses (and I’ve toured nearly 140 college campuses) is that I see students and parents being far too passive. All too often, students and parents walk silently, following the tour guide and simply taking in what’s fed to them. Then they get back in their cars and drive away, having missed out on their BEST opportunity to get great insights from the people who know that campus best: the students! My recommendation is for you to be MORE ACTIVE. Shift to ACTIVE mode during your college campus visit (as well as before and after your visit) versus PASSIVE mode. Be an active asker of questions, and be an active listener. Be PROACTIVE to guide the quality and substance of your college campus visit. The best way to do this is to ASK GOOD QUESTIONS.
The Three Key Questions to Ask During A College Campus Visit
Over more than ten years of taking regular college campus visits all over the country, here are the three PRICELESS questions I’ve found to be the most productive when it comes to learning about colleges during a college campus visit. These questions are GOLD, my friends, and they should be in your arsenal of the MUST-ASK questions during your next college campus visit. Ask students you encounter during your time on campus these three key questions. Here they are!
“Why did you choose [insert name of college]?” Don’t just say, “this college”. Insert the name of the college you’re visiting. If you’re at Valparaiso, say, “Why did you choose Valpo?”
Then ask, “Do you mind if I ask what other colleges you were considering and what tipped the scales in favor of Valparaiso/Valpo [insert name of college here]?” The reason for this question is to identify overlaps or “cross apps”. Valpo, for instance, is a medium-sized, private, church-affiliated university, so it would have a lot in common with other Midwest-based, medium-sized, private, church-affiliated universities like Drake, Xavier, Butler or St. Thomas. You could gather quite a bit of information from learning what other schools students applied to. If you keep hearing one name over and over again, go check out that college, too. You may hear the name of a school you’ve never heard of that should be on your list.
Finally, “If you had a magic wand, what would you change about Valpo?” I used to ask this differently, “What’s the worst thing about this college?” Or “What don’t you like about this college?” But I found that people got a little bit defensive. No one wants to say anything bad about the school they’ve chosen. Everyone wants to feel they’ve made the best choice for them. The magic wand question diffuses this quite a bit. Even if you’ve made the best choice for you and it’s nearly perfect, most people will be able to tell you at least one thing they’d change if they had a magic wand. You’ll hear really interesting things when you ask this question.
Why it’s challenging to ASK STUDENTS QUESTIONS during your college campus visit.
I get it, folks. Asking students these questions pushes you out of your comfort zone. But frankly, isn’t getting out of your comfort zone a big part of what the shift to college is all about? And let’s face it. The fact that you’re making a six-figure+ purchase here is uncomfortable! Why wouldn’t you take the extra steps to ensure you’re making the best college decisions you can?
And yet, it’s super uncomfortable. For one thing, many people wear headphones around campus and they’re on their phones. This is different than when I started doing this 10 years ago. Tapping someone on the shoulder when they’re eyeball-deep in a screen is uncomfortable. Yet when I’ve done it, time and time again, I’ve been surprised how willing students are to share their experience about two of their favorite topics: THEM and THEIR CHOSEN COLLEGE. Also, you’re a high school student and it’s hard to approach a college student and ask them questions. It takes courage. It just does. This whole process takes courage and will push you out of your comfort zone. There’s no better, more efficient way to get answers to your questions than when you’re live and in front of the people who know this school best: the students who go there. Remember that they, too, were once in your shoes, and they know how anxious you’re feeling. You’ll be surprised how helpful they’ll want to be when you simply ask.
Here are some low-hanging fruit students to ask to make your question-asking challenge easier:
Ask your tour guide. This is the easiest ask of all.
Ask the student working at the university bookstore behind the counter. Ask while they’re ringing up your swag. I do this all the time!
Ask the student working as a server in the restaurant you try on or near campus. Ask them if they’re a student, and then dive into your three key questions.
Ask a student sitting by themselves in the Union as you walk through. It’s less scary sometimes to approach an individual than a small group, although…
Ask a group of 2-3 students, because often they’ll be more likely to talk if you say, “Hey, I’m visiting today. Can I ask the two/three of you a couple of super-quick questions about being a student here?” Often, when I’ve done this, I’ve been shocked at how long they want to talk about their experience. I hear them play off one another and compare notes, and I learn a TON in the process. Plus, you get 2-3 perspectives for the price of one. Bonus!
If you can, in advance of your visit, ask if you can sit in one a class in the department or field you’re interested in, and then ask students from that class as class is dismissed. Often, the professor will mention that you are there as a visitor and even prompt students to offer help, which they will. Our son Joe had this experience. Two students talked his ear off for nearly an hour toward the end of a college class period. He still says that was the highlight of his visit to that college campus, because he felt, “They weren’t trying to sell me anything. They were just being honest.”
For additional insights on steps to take both pre-visit and post-visit to maximize your college campus visits, check out our full-length Facebook video. You can also email me for detailed information on how to make the most of your college campus visits and even great note-taking tools like our Campus Visit Bullet Journal. We specialize in helping you make the most of every step of your college planning journey, and great college campus visits are at the top of that list.
Sophomore Goals: Begin your College Search and begin to define the University of You™.
As a high school sophomore, you’re probably already starting to get pokes and prods from well-meaning relatives and friends who are curious about your college plans. However, you might not even know where to start! The college search process can be overwhelming. We’ve created a short list of tasks you can complete as a sophomore to yield the best chances for college admission and the smoothest college search journey this side of the Mississippi.
It’s sophomore year, time to put your big kid pants on! It’s also time to begin your College Search, either on your own or with help. As a freshman, hopefully you took your first official college campus tour. Now, it’s time to ramp that up. Visit college options that interest you. We can help you find ‘hidden gems’ that could reward you financially for your academic and other achievements. Many students choose to work with us on their college search process starting sophomore year. Seize the day! The best way to learn more about a school is by taking the official college campus tour! If you’re not sure what this looks like, you can schedule a free consult anytime in person (for those near Madison, Wisconsin) or via video conference (for those outside the Madison area) and get your questions answered.
In addition to college campus visits, do online research about colleges that interest you. You can also contact college admissions staff via phone and email (advisors, professors, department heads, Honors department, etc.). They’re there to answer your questions, and can send you information via mail and email. This will give you a better feel of the offerings and vibe at each school on your growing list of college prospects. Also, don’t forget to make use of free college planning resources, such as your high school guidance counselor or websites like CollegeData.com!
Take Academic Commitment to the Next Level.
Just as sophomore athletes move up from the freshman team to the JV team, continue to add to your academic skill set throughout your sophomore year. Take academics to the next level in terms of commitment and the way you challenge yourself. Remember, the cumulative GPA you use to apply to colleges will be based on three (not four) years of high school. Sophomore year is prime time for dropping dimes in the classroom. Continue to build your academic stats, and you’ll end up with solid credentials by the time you apply to college. This could mean increasing your GPA, maintaining a rigorous curriculum, or even taking your first AP class (remember, AP exam credits often translate to less Gen Eds in college, which means you save money.)
Practice Makes Perfect.
The only way to practice the ACT is to actually take a practice ACT exam. The Pre-ACT, and Aspire test are different tests and don’t offer the same insight as a full-length practice ACT exam. At OnCampus College Planning, we offer free Practice Exams monthly. Sign up online!
Schedule your first practice ACT exam during the spring of your sophomore year. This will give you a benchmark heading into your junior year, so that you’ll know where you currently stand in relation to admission or merit aid thresholds. After taking your first practice exam and getting your score back, you can look at the Affordability/Scholarships page of your college options—which often contain information about ACT requirements for varying levels of merit aid—and see how much money you’d receive without seeking further test prep help. Compare that to what you could earn if you increase your ACT score. Nearly all college websites have a net price calculator located somewhere within the site, which allows you to plug in financial data and/or GPA and test scores to see your expected cost of attendance.
Sophomores, plan ahead. Before the first day of junior year, pick an official ACT/SAT Exam Date that’s BEFORE winter break of junior year based on your schedule and when you can focus. Make sure to prepare for this exam and do your best. ACT Exams are offered each year in February, April, June, July, September, October and December.
Need Assistance? We’ve Got You Covered.
We offer one-on-one ACT test prep, as well as a program called University of You™ College Search. University of You™ College Search is our exclusive process, designed and led by college planner Tom Kleese. Student and parents gain the ability to make confident, well-informed college decisions. With our exclusive University of You™ College Search Discovery Process, you’ll gain a crystal-clear picture of yourself and your college goals. You’ll learn to clearly articulate what you want, need, don’t want and don’t need in your ideal college experience. What emerges is the “University of You”, your unique definition of the school that best matches your unique abilities, interests and aspirations. We’ll then help you discover amazing college options, including hidden gems and high-value schools that will reward you financially, academically and personally for your achievements.