Don't just get in to college, finish it.

A blog entry in the Washington Post caught my attention this week: "Getting into college was the easy part. Staying there is getting harder than ever, experts say." In it, Brennan Barnard, the director of college counseling at a private college prep school, gives advice about how to better ensure you finish what you start when you go to college. But the advice, which is really good and worth your time, is aimed at students about to begin their first year of college. What can you do as a high school student to make sure you're ready for the transition and to stay in college until you've earned your degree?

Watch out for "finish line" mentality. Many students spend all their high school years thinking about getting into college. And when you do, it feels great. You've made it. That's what they all say, "you've made it." Made it, crossed that line, walked across that stage. The problem, though, is that if you're going on to college then you haven't exactly made it. You've got to start all over again in the fall. Getting too caught up in thinking about college admission as crossing a finish line can really harm you if you aren't prepared to begin the race again. 

In her best-selling book about habits, Gretchen Rubin talks about the problem with the finish line and rewards. She gives examples of people who train for a marathon, love the experience, but then don't run anymore once they cross the (literal in this case) finish line. Likewise, she says that over half of women who stop smoking during pregnancy begin again within six months of delivering a baby. She gives another common example, one I know too well:

"The reward of the finish line has a particularly bad effect for people on a 'diet.' Despite its popularity...dieting has an abysmal track record. According to a review of studies of long-term outcomes of calorie-restricting diets, one-third to two-thirds of people who dieted eventually regained more weight than they initially lost. Why? Perhaps because people are encouraged to set a goal weight, and once they hit that finish line, they slide back into their old eating habits." (Gretchen Rubin, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. 2015. Page 197.)

You obviously can't avoid the reward of graduating, but you can decide now that you're not going to fall into the finish line trap--also known as chronic catastrophic senioritis--and lose your motivation before you begin college. Rubin suggests looking for intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic rewards. You're not doing well in high school in order to get into college, you're doing well in high school in order to be an educated person and a lifelong learner. There is no finish line, just the reward of the habit itself.

Be involved in communities. You're probably involved in groups. Clubs, teams, programs. But are you in actual communities? If you simply go from activity to activity, being present and maybe even participating, only to fill up a resume without devoting yourself and sharing yourself, then you're not really a part of a community. And with no practice at forming or sustaining a community, college life is going to be extremely difficult. Having one or two really close friends is good, but you still need to belong to a group and understand what you get out of belonging. When you practice this in high school, you'll be much more prepared to join new communities when you go off to college. We've all heard that it takes a village to raise a child, but what we're not always told is that it takes a village to maintain an adult, too. 

So how do you go from just being a member of a group to a member of a community? Listen to people at least as much as you speak, even if you're a group leader. Especially if you're a group leader. Talk to members of the group on a regular basis about things other than the group's activities. Know who you could call if you found in yourself in trouble, and make sure they know they can count on you as well. It doesn't necessarily have to be all touchy-feely emotional all the time, but it has to be more than just having a few shared experiences. 

Value process at least as much as result. It's highly unlikely that the products you make in high school are going to be useful to you in college and beyond. That research paper isn't going to get used again, nor will your lab write-up get you college credits. To a huge degree, even most of the knowledge you gain in high school will not have an immediate or concrete effect. What will have an immediate and lasting effect are the skills and understanding you gain in high school. Which means that you should focus on learning those skills and gaining those insights. If you stumble your way through writing a paper, or even worse cheat or copy your way through writing your paper, and don't understand the process of paper-writing, then you're screwed when you get to college, no matter how high the grade you got on the paper. Same for organizing and coordinating a group project. And for studying for a test. It's not the grades that count, it's mastering the skills and processes that get you the grades. Always focus on those. 

Reword the old saying a little bit: if you manage to get a fish, then you'll eat for a day. But if you learn the art and science of fishing then you'll eat forever. And in this case, the fish is symbolic for good grades and achievements.

Understand your weaknesses. You can overcome your weaknesses if you're honest with yourself about what they are. Or you can at least compensate for your weaknesses. Ask yourself this question: "which of my qualities or habits most got in the way of my high school success?" Don't focus on other people or other barriers to success. They may be real and significant, but you have to know your own weaknesses as well. Those same qualities or habits that got in the way of high school success are going to be the ones that get in the way of college success. So you can plan for that now. When I begin work with a coaching client, one of the things I ask in our first meeting is what their particular bad habits are. Procrastination is a popular answer. So is over-committing to too many things. And indecision. And poor time-management.

Pay attention to school numbers. When you're trying to decide if a college is good for you, look at their freshman retention rate. That's the percentage of freshman who come back the next year to be sophomores. Also look at their six-year graduation rate. Should these numbers be the only factor in deciding where to go? Of course not. But if you like numbers or having objective ways to compare schools, these two numbers are far more useful than rankings on a "best colleges" list or admission selectivity percentages.

Think about school funding for all four (or five or six) years, not just one. Lots of people leave college not for reasons having to do with habits or communities, but for financial reasons. They simply can't afford to go back. When you talk to your family about money, make sure that all of you are thinking about the whole four to six years of college, not just the first year. If you get a one-time, small scholarship (there are so many $500 and $1000 scholarships out there!), then how will you cover that cost after the first year? If you get a scholarship from the college that requires you to keep up a 3.5 GPA, but you've never been able to maintain over a 3.2, then how are you going to make sure you improve your grades? If you take an unsubsidized loan, then what will be the effect of the interest already compounding while you're still in school? Make sure you consider the entire package, not just the first year.

Thanks for reading. I hope new school year is off--or soon to be off--to a great start. Please share this with someone who would like to read it, and follow Apply with Sanity on Facebook and Twitter.