Wednesday, October 31, 2012

by Alex McNeil

Decked out in robes and hats, my 200-something graduating classmates were arranged in rows on the lawn below the stage. Beyond them their family and friends sat waiting for the joint speech that was to be delivered by the salutatorian and me.

It was not to be delivered by the salutatorian and me because I was the valedictorian. I was not. My GPA put me soundly in the lower-most quartile of my graduating class, and it was only a coincidence that my best friend—Andrew—was the salutatorian. We were speaking together because we wanted to and because my school didn’t care about grades when it came to graduation speeches. Anyone who cared to perform was welcome to audition—academic standings be damned.

Our speech was probably as unmemorable as your average student-delivered graduation speech: full of stammers and stutters, creatively bankrupt. But I remember it clearly for two reasons. One, I gave it (and I was nervous as hell). Two, I didn’t think I really deserved to speak at all.

The way I saw it, I didn’t belong behind the podium because I did terribly in high school. I never understood why I was in school, nor for whom I was there, and it reflected in my transcript. By senior year I found myself with a 2.4 GPA and no college acceptances. But there I was, speaking to my peers like I knew what I was doing. I felt like I was saying “I will strike out on the path that lies before me with cool, excited confidence. You should, too.”

I was neither cool nor confident—I was college-less and confused.

School had been hard for me, and I wasn’t eager to jump into another four years of it. But the idea of college was tempting. Maybe I would be good at it, I thought. Maybe it would just magically click. Maybe.

But wistful thinking couldn’t erase bad grades. So, not really knowing what else to do, I came up with a plan. It went something like this: take a gap year; attend a junior college; do well; transfer to a good school. I figured that a break from school might be what I needed. After all, I had no idea what I was genuinely passionate about or what I was interested in doing with the rest of my life.

This was a decent plan. But I was still embarrassed that it was the only plan available. Insecure, I did everything I could to hide my GPA from my friends. I lied, omitted truths, and built up a well-articulated fortress of reasons as to why I wouldn’t be attending a four-year college in the fall. I downplayed my academic track record and focused instead on money: “Honestly, it’s economical to go to community college. I don’t want to pay tuition for my GEs! I could go to a community college and get the same education for a fraction of the cost.” It wasn’t the worst argument, but it wasn’t one I wanted to be making. The contrarian in me doesn’t like to admit it, but I just wanted what everyone else did—a little liberal arts college to call my own.

But, thanks to my ridiculously low GPA, that wasn’t an option for me. My application was too weak to get me into the schools where I wanted to be, and I had no desire to attend the schools that would have accepted me.

Summer vacation came and went. My friends went off to school, and I found myself stumbling headfirst onto an India-bound plane and into the unknown. My gap year had begun.

My trip to India was steeped in new experiences—filled with revelatory moments of both joy and disgust. I saw the nauseating wealth of Mumbai’s upper class, experienced the destitution that slept in the louse-ridden corridors of an Indian orphanage, and got rocked by a magnitude-6.9 earthquake. During a two-week stint in Nepal I met the founder of a non-profit school-building initiative.

The prospect of building a school in a country as beautiful as Nepal was too much to pass up. I asked if I could come build with him. He said yes. I joined him two months later.

I left high school as a set of numbers: my GPA, my class rank, my SAT score. I returned from my gap year as more than that. I returned as a person.

My gap year rebuilt my sense of self-worth. By the end of it—for the first time in my life—I felt comfortable and happy in my own skin. I’m attending a community college now, but I’m doing it with purpose, direction, and confidence. My gap year showed me that I am lucky to have been born in a country where education is compulsory, of high quality, and free. My gap year convinced me that it is not just my duty, but also my privilege to spend my life helping those less fortunate than I am.

Everyone should take a gap year at some point in their life—student or otherwise. It gave me time to figure out who I am, who I am not, and who I want to be. My gap year was a year of introspection and self-exploration—one that changed the trajectory of my entire life.

In retrospect, I’m glad I failed high school. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t.

Alex McNeil is an intern for Challenge Success. Learn more about him at

Sunday, October 21, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Admissions Anxiety: It’s Not Just a Problem For Students

It’s early admissions time and parents across the nation are teetering on the edge of a full-fledged nail-chewing, staring-at-the-ceiling-all-night anxiety attack. Yes, you read that right. Parents. While college-bound high school seniors surely care where they’ll receive their higher education, it’s their Moms and Dads who really suffer.

There’s not just one reason why parents get so worked up over college admissions. Typically, it’s a mix of several complex reasons. Part of it is our terrible economy: parents are genuinely worried that if their kids don’t graduate from a prestigious school they’ll surely end up back in their old room four or five years from now sending out resume after unanswered resume.

But that’s not the only reason. Reluctant as we may be to admit it, parental peer pressure plays a big role as well. Think about all the college bumper stickers you see on parents’ cars. Ever notice the shortage of community college logos? That’s because these bumper stickers are status symbols, like carrying the right purse or driving the right SUV. They’re part of our identity as “good parents.”

Unfortunately, kids are all too aware of our desire for college bragging rights. They may either strive to please us by getting into a prestigious school—sometimes to no avail—or they may throw their hands up and resign themselves to being a disappointment. (Need I point out that neither of these responses is healthy?)

To complicate matters further, our preoccupation with college is often a cover for facing the loss of our child. We obsess about the school instead of thinking about the empty room. Kids, too, can become difficult during this period of time. It's often their way of easing the transition for themselves and for their parents.

So what can you as a parent do to relieve the pressure on your high school student (and put your own mind at ease) around the issue of college admissions? Understanding the psychological basis of your own anxiety may help. Beyond that, though, there are two sets of advice I like to give, depending on the age of your student.


Realize that it’s not really about the school. It’s about the kid. Especially among upper middle class and affluent parents, there’s a strong belief that going to a top-tier college—especially one in the Ivy League—will provide unimaginable advantages in the professional world. This belief spawns an overwhelming frenzy of tutoring classes, ancillary “educational enrichment,” test prep, and more, all to help their offspring become “ideal candidates.” While going to a top-tier school may certainly offer great benefits for the right child, it’s certainly not the be-all, end-all. A famous study by Dale and Krueger compared students who attended prestigious universities to others who were accepted, but who chose to attend different, less prestigious schools. Twenty years later, researchers found no difference in job advancement or income level between the two groups (with the exception of inner city kids). The study illustrated the fact that it is primarily the student, not the school, that is responsible for success.

Here’s my point: no school ensures either success or failure. Both Bill Gates and Ted Kaczynski attended Harvard.

Focus more on whether the school is the right fit than whether it impresses the neighbors. It’s a match, not a prize. Kids report hating the pressure they feel when they are constantly asked, "Where are you applying?” They are fully aware of the judgments that will accompany their answers. Don’t feed into this problem. Instead, try questions like "Are you thinking about a big school or a smaller one? Urban or rural? Bookish or fun?”

The idea is to get kids thinking about the realities of college life and focus on the fact that it is a time of great personal development. As much will happen outside the classroom as in it. Prestigious schools are great for some kids, but they’re certainly not right for every kid. Whether a school is the right ‘fit’ may determine whether your child has a rewarding college experience or a miserable one.


Ask yourself: are the rewards involved in acceptance to prestigious schools worth the risks? The stress of keeping up the grades, and the pace, necessary for acceptance to the Gotta-Get-In schools exacts a heavy price. Kids pressured to do so take AP courses that require studying four to six hours a night after a full day of school and often hours of athletic practice. They miss out on sleep, often relying on amphetamines they call “study aids.” Not only does this lifestyle wreak havoc on their physical health and interfere with their normal development, it deprives them of the joy of being teens.

The risk/reward ratio is what matters. When parents truly understand what kids have to give up in the pursuit of academic success, they may come to realize the price is just too high for some kids. The stress that results from pushing kids to excel academically, and expecting perfection from them, can contribute to escalating rates of emotional problems. The fact that 17 percent of students at Princeton and Cornell self-mutilate is, by itself, a pretty clear indication that the highest levels of academic achievement may not be a risk-free path.

Prize your child’s happiness over society’s notion of success. Here’s a radical thought: So what if your kid wants to be a kindergarten teacher instead of a doctor? So what if she wants to wait tables during the day and try out for Broadway plays at night? Too many parents believe there is only one definition of success—and it’s one that depends on an advanced degree from a prestigious school. This is simply not true.

Some people feel successful because of the jobs they have or the money they make, yes, but others feel successful because of their relationships with friends and families. Still others feel “true to themselves.” When we take a singular focus on academic achievement, we are telling kids there is only one path to success. When they buy into this belief they can’t possibly figure out who they are, what they value, or what kind of life is likely to be authentic, meaningful, and satisfying to them. They’re not living life; they’re giving a performance.

But back to the issue at hand: admissions anxiety. There’s enough normal stress during the transition from high school to college without ratcheting it up to a kind of hysteria.

In Finland, the world's exemplar of education, all schools, including their universities are free. They strive for equity and not out of control competition and end up with kids who do much better on international testing. I know, I know: America is not likely to follow Finland’s lead any time soon. But at least parents can do their part to keep college in perspective, stay calm, and let their kids enjoy this exciting time in their lives.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

App Season
(No, not those apps, college apps)

by Stephanie Rafanelli

The college application season is fully underway and seniors across the country are madly collecting recommendations, gathering information about schools, and crafting essays about the meaning of life. As anyone who has been through an application process knows, it is an intensely personal and humbling whirlwind of an experience.

Amidst this mad dash, a process given an almost insane amount of weight – will their location at age nineteen, in fact, be the most important determinant of all future trajectories? really? – they almost certainly have a few other things going on. They probably are attending school, doing homework and classwork, and possibly taking one or more honors or AP classes. They might have extracurricular activities, such as music, sports, art, or spiritual study. I hope they have family responsibilities and are, at the very least, responsible for making their bed and washing a few dishes. Given that they are adolescent, they are doubtless spending a significant portion of their time thinking about friends, relationships, and themselves.

No wonder they sometimes look dazed. As a teacher who has spent many years offering a temporary refuge to overwhelmed seniors, I offer the following ideas about supporting your neighborhood senior over the next few months.

  1. If possible, let them be. Offer a comfortable seat and, better yet, food and then let them be. There are very few places where they can simply and quietly breath for a few minutes.
  2. Keep toys handy. Slinkys, yo-yos, bouncy balls, wind-up toys, marble ramps . . . any toy that can allow the student to become legitimately lost for a few minutes.
  3. When they seem open to talking, ask them how they are. Then listen.
  4. Offer a laugh. If like me, your own jokes have been, ahem, called into question, I recommend keeping props. My stack of Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Deep Thoughts books have been so well loved over the years that many have had to be replaced. There is something magical about seeing an anxious-looking senior pick up a comic book and begin laughing out loud.
  5. If you are extremely lucky, and the senior offers you a chance to ask questions, ask good questions. Resist any urge to ask where they are applying – they are turning this question over in their head and with their college counselor ad nauseam. Instead, take them by surprise and ask something like:

    • What survival skill do you think you might need to master before next year – laundry? Biking with a full backpack? Living with snow/humidity/rain?
    • If you could only take one book with you next year – what would it be?
    • What change are you most looking forward to next year?
    • What are you most apprehensive or unsure about?
    • It is your tenth high school reunion – who do you run into that you wish you had stayed in touch with? (Side note: this one always draws a laugh and, “Whoa! I’ll be, like, SO old!”)
On behalf of the class of 2013, I urge you to practice patience. Help the seniors you know to take a moment to relax and take a load off. Then, after a few minutes, gently ask them one more time to pick up their dirty socks and finish their work and get in bed. As Calvin points out, “Sometimes it seems things go by too quickly. We’re so busy watching out for what's just ahead of us that we don't take the time to enjoy where we are.”— The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

College Applications Made Simple(r)
by Maureen Brown

It’s nearing the deadline for early applications to colleges, and that can mean anxiety over whether your son or daughter is really “sure enough” to apply to his top choice, badgering him to get the essays done and a generally stressed-out household. We spend a lot of time with high school students, and there is one thing we know for sure: they don’t want the college application to take over their lives and result in non-stop strife in their families, but they just don’t know how to avoid it, and, frequently, neither do their parents. While it would be overly optimistic to think that stress can be completely eliminated from the process there are things that can be done to increase your child’s chances of putting together a good application without losing it. Here are our suggestions for what your kids should do:

  1. Organize your stuff. Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many times students don’t do it. Keep a folder with all of your SAT, ACT, and AP scores and test dates so that you don’t waste time looking for the information. Likewise, keep track of the activities you have done in high school and any honors that you have received.

  2. Decide which teachers you will ask for references and do it before you leave for summer at the end of junior year. Remember, your teachers are busy, too, and they will appreciate advance notice so that they can plan. Put together a packet of information for your teachers—a resume, sports profile, etc. that will help them know more about you.

  3. Understand requirements and deadlines. Colleges ask for similar, but unfortunately not identical, information. Look at the Common Application early, gather the basic information and draft at least the short answer essay before starting senior year. Make a chart or spreadsheet of EXACTLY what you need to submit with the deadline for each component of the application. If you are being recruited as an athlete or performer, realize that your process will be different and your timelines will be accelerated.

  4. Make sure your counselor knows who you are before October! Really. Every year during the third week of October, with the early decision deadlines looming, students flock to their counselors’ offices looking for advice. It is not easy for counselors to help you in a meaningful way if they don’t know you.

  5. Narrow down your schools list. No one can write more than 7 or 8 high-quality applications. You may complete more than that, but recognize that you will not have the time or energy to do your best work on all of them. Work in priority order. And, if you would rather die than go to Misery U, take it off your list no matter what your parents, friends or counselors say. Of course, you should have an informed, logical reason for despising the school.

  6. Agree on ground rules with your parents. No one wants to be bugged daily by their parents about writing applications, but let’s be realistic—there is going to be bugging. Agree with your parents on a time once a week when you will talk about where you are in the process and what you still have to do.

  7. Write about what you care about in your own voice. There is no perfect essay, and trying to concoct one usually fails miserably. Think about something that you care about or that interests you. What do you want the readers of the application to know about you that they might not otherwise know without reading your essay? Try not to over think it, and be true to yourself. And remember, having someone proofread it does not mean writing it for you. Do your own work.

Maureen Brown, MBA, is Executive Director for Challenge Success, where she oversees daily operations as well as marketing and strategic planning. Ms. Brown comes to Challenge Success with over 20 years of consulting experience in health care, financial services, and technology. Prior to joining Challenge Success, Ms. Brown worked as an independent consultant and as a Partner at APM, Incorporated, where she structured, sold and managed strategic and operations improvement engagements for health care institutions, primarily university medical centers. Ms. Brown has also worked in Cash Management for Philadelphia National Bank and Citibank. She has been on various boards at Georgetown, and most recently co-founded the Bay Area Georgetown Technology Alliance. Ms. Brown has also served as a Board member at Woodside School.