The number of high school seniors applying to MIT this year is 60% above last year. That means there are 12,000 more applicants. Harvard’s applications are up 30%. Duke is up 20%. Most Ivy League schools are up 20% at least.

What does this mean? First, it means that your chances of getting into MIT are so close to 0% that you probably need a degree from MIT to figure out the number.

Second, it means that the main thing holding kids back from reaching for the stars has been the reality of their SAT score. Covid forced schools to make the SAT non-required and that opened up the floodgates. Universities are so overwhelmed by the onslaught of early applications that the admissions committees are having to move their announcement dates back to give themselves more time.

Standards statistics are gone
What is remarkable to me is watching kids deal with the rug being pulled out from under them. After spending their whole lives hearing how important grades and scores are, those numbers don’t matter so much this year. Students applying at the beginning of the senior year have no senior grades, and some of their junior grades were pass/fail because of Covid. The kids took AP courses but they never took the test because of Covid. Kids studied for months for the SAT but didn’t get to take it.

Extracurriculars rule the day
It turns out what you did outside of school is really really important. When the quantitative measures are messed up admissions officers have to look at the qualitative angle: extracurriculars. They mean a lot this year. You have to have real interests and you had to have put in serious time. So forget founding a nonprofit with your parent’s money. Admissions officers have seen that too many times before. And god help you if you practiced violin for an hour a day for your whole life — so did everyone else applying to top schools.

The unathletic are having a moment
Excelling at something. That’s good. But not sports. The rich kids thought they were safe from a pandemic when they built secret racquetball courts in Greenwich. But no one’s safe from the budget shortfalls of Covid. Dartmouth canceled swimming. Stanford canceled fencing, rowing, sailing, and like ten other things. There is total panic among kids who dedicated their entire childhood gunning for one of those athletic spots.

It pays off to have the guts to commit at a young age 
Like all years, the top candidates have hooks and spikes. A hook is when a candidate has an attribute colleges actively seek. For example, being an underrepresented minority is a hook. So is being low-income or living in Montana. A spike is an extracurricular activity that makes you stand out among other kids who have good extracurriculars. You have been so committed to an activity that you have achieved something at the national or international level — be it academic or athletic or creative.

I read the two best sources for information on college applications: College Confidential and /r/ApplyingToCollege on Reddit. Both communities are full of kids talking about hooks and spikes with the same familiarity as grades and scores. These kids can’t control their hooks – it’s mostly how you’re born. But kids can control their spikes. And it’s amazing to me that high schoolers can clearly see the urgency of choosing something to be good at but adults continue to miss the boat.

Specializing is necessary at all ages
It’s adults who I hear saying, “It’s too early to know! You have time! Let yourself explore!” But those are the same adults who explored in their 20s and then didn’t have a career focus in their 30s and ended up unemployable in their 40s. What I’m saying is that focusing is always hard. It always feels too early in life to focus. And as humans we always want to have more options. We want more life, really. But we don’t get that. So the earlier you commit to doing something, the more likely you are to stand out among your peers for doing it well.

For kids or adults, the truth is the same — if you don’t just pick something, you won’t be good at something. The fact is, it doesn’t much matter what you pick. If you are good at one thing, you have more ability to scootch over to another thing. But if you have not proven you can commit and work hard and focus to be really good at one thing, then people don’t believe you’ll be good at something else either. They’re just not interested.

Covid has changed everything –– from college to careers
I coach a lot of high schoolers these days. Because Covid has changed the college application management game as much as it’s changed the career management game. And I’ve been struck by how quickly the kids are able to pivot to a new plan as compared to the adults. Young people fundamentally believe that they will adapt whereas adults frequently hope that they won’t have to adapt.

But there are new rules. And the most important thing to do when all the rules change is to get a grip and pick a path. If you spend too much time being angry or scared about the change, you miss out on all the advantages that come with the change.

I’m offering discounted career coaching sessions to help you leverage the opportunities of Covid. My coaching sessions are usually $350 but I’m doing sessions for $150 if you purchase during the next 5 days. (Last time I offered a discounted session I was booked back to back for five months. I can’t do that again. So you need to schedule the session before February 28.)


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17 replies
  1. Jenwithben
    Jenwithben says:

    Kids adapt and change so easily—-which is important for parents to remember and take inspiration from because change is so hard the older you get. Kids are social distancing and zooming and wearing masks like NBD. Meanwhile, adults can’t pivot.

  2. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Yah, getting an A in night school at a touch typing class for a normal qwerty keyboard… meant I was confident to teach myself with an on-line course for a Dvorak keyboard. Yup, I learned to touch type for a new improved keyboard, without needing to re-label my keys. Confidence gave me the faith to maintain my focus until I was good at it.

    Also, other stuff had trained my focus and sense of agency.

    In our changing world, one of the fastest changing fields is computers. A computer guy said he asks job candidates whether they have ever learned something outside of what they needed for school. Perhaps for a hobby. His idea is that someday he might ask them to learn a new programming code, and he didn’t want them resistant to learning. Especially if it’s something they have to learn on their own, outside of company hours.

    • Cheryl Lynn Morris
      Cheryl Lynn Morris says:

      “His idea is that someday he might ask them to learn a new programming code, and he didn’t want them resistant to learning.”
      This sounds familiar to me because I read the book “The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking”. (It’s a great book and I recommend it to everyone!)
      The authors encourage people to be open to learning all kinds of bits and pieces of information (for example, read a magazine in a subject matter that you normally wouldn’t read–i.e., an artist reading a mechanic’s magazine, or vice versa).
      Charles Darwin is said to have stated, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

  3. jenn
    jenn says:

    Sorry to be a dick but there’s no such thing as Feb 30th, otherwise, great read. My kids are six, time for me to get them focused on their “spikes”

  4. Joe E
    Joe E says:

    “But if you have not proven you can commit and work hard and focus to be really good at one thing, then people don’t believe you’ll be good at something else either. They’re just not interested.”

    I loved the idea of what college used to be about: you take all kinds of classes and learn new things. You even fail where you used to succeed, but that’s because you’re growing. The idea of college was to learn to think critically, to open your mind, to meet and bond with people whose lives may be vastly different from your own. It’s a chance to become a young adult in a reasonably secure environment.

    The current reality—that you need a hook or a spike to even get in to college—is, in some ways, depressing. I think kids should learn to work hard and all that. But I wish they didn’t have to “become good at one thing”—because automatically that leaves so much less time for all the rest of the things world has to offer. But I realize my Gen-X perspective is based on something I experienced, so of course a new reality might sound less appealing. I see how it can be amazing, though, as well.

    • Cheryl Lynn Morris
      Cheryl Lynn Morris says:

      Hi Joe,

      “But if you have not proven you can commit and work hard and focus to be really good at one thing, then people don’t believe you’ll be good at something else either. They’re just not interested.”

      I just remembered an Air Force Academy study: the researchers wanted to find out what factors predicted a cadet’s chances of success–graduating from the Academy.
      They looked at many factors, and the best predictor of success was when the kid had a paper route for a number of years.

      Happy Holidays,

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        OMG I love that study. It’s perfectly aligned with the Harvard study. After looking at the lives of Harvard grads for 50 years, the only consistent predictor of who would be happy was not if you went to Harvard, but if you had daily chores as a kid.


  5. Maureen
    Maureen says:

    “If you spend too much time being angry or scared about the change, you miss out on all the advantages that come with the change.”

    Since there will be extraordinary change this upcoming year (like it or not), this will now be my mantra. Thanks. I needed that.

  6. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Your kids will be fine no matter what they end up doing. They are not helpless. Do they need to go to a top school? If so, why?

    Most people live very rewarding Iives without those degrees. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your life. This is the moment to soak up with what is now and not spend it fearing the unknown. That is a one-way ticket to compounded misery.

    I wish you and your family all the best and believe that even if they end up in community college and transfer to some non-famous school, they will be very happy and productive people. Satisfaction doesn’t come from “success”. It comes from being aware of what truly matters and being grateful you have it . The last thing I wish for them is a decade of nasty competition.

    What if one of your kids chooses to work in a low paying job? Does that make him a loser? Does it make you a loser?

    Not on my book and I don’t think you want to look down on people who are in those jobs.

    Your kids will find a way.

    I hope you have a very fulfilling new year.


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