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Self-Identify & Great College Essays


How do you show thoughtfulness in your personal statement?

Why not learn from the professionals? Think about your favorite story. Whether a movie or a novel, that story will include a hero, a victim, a villain, and a mentor/guide.

What may not be obvious at first (before adding thoughtfulness)-- is that the hero, the victim, and the villain all begin the same way.

Think about it. Each of them begins as a person who faces injustice. The villain responds by becoming resentful and spending their time making others look small so that they can feel bigger.
The victim responds by staying the same and waiting to be saved by the hero.
The hero responds by accepting the challenge and working to overcome the injustice.

One of the reasons why bright, capable students may appear to be lazy is actually not because they don't care. They probably care a lot. But if they try their best and still fail, it would be humiliating. So they feel like they don't have a good way out, and choose to self-identify as a victim.

Understanding yourself (and humanity) on this deeper level shows an unusual level of thoughtfulness.

Listen to learn more, and to hear how you can step up and self-identify as the hero more often.


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Are you a teenager in high school looking for an internship opportunity? Or are you looking for a research mentor or guide or some expert to take you under their wing and show you around in the field that you're interested in, whether that's engineering or medicine or dentistry, or some other field? Perhaps you are like several people who have been reaching out to me recently about opportunities.

For example, this message that I've only edited slightly to hide their identity. It says, do you have any suggestions on the best summer programs or best summer opportunities for high school freshmen? Who wants to pursue science, research, or medical or data science field? We're unable to find any good science research programs or internships at this age. And we have been looking everywhere. Any references or pointers are highly appreciated, or this one that sounds to me very similar. It says my son is in 10th grade now, and he wants to do some summer research or a summer program. He's been exploring various domains and has concluded that his interest is in biology. And he wants to pursue some kind of Biomed or biochemistry. What are the summer programs or internships or opportunities in or outside x city where he can pursue a research program or an internship? He's not eligible for one reason or another in all the places that we've looked, usually because he's too young. Does this sound familiar to you? These personal messages that I've gotten are two of dozens that sound very similar.

In fact, a lot of people I know from around the united states and throughout the world are trying to find ways to stand out in their college applications. And they want to look ahead, they're trying to get a head start, which is a great idea, all right. It's just the approach and the mindset that needs a little bit of help because you have to realize what these parents are looking for when they're asking for help to find, quote, unquote, and opportunities. What are these opportunities? When does someone say they're looking for an opportunity? What they're saying is they're looking for a program that's been established by adults that they can plug their teenager into, or that the teenager can plug themselves into. In other words, they're looking for a track that's already been established. They can just get on board and they can ride that track to success. Can you hear the problem with that already right off the bat? Because whether you're looking for an internship or you're looking for a mentor to guide you through some process and expert in your field, or the field that you want to go into, or some research partner, a research expert, a professor of some kind, regardless of what you're looking for, when you say you're looking for an opportunity or you're looking for an internship or you're looking for a program, what you're saying is you want someone else to have put in place all of the provisions, laid the track, laid the road for you, so that you can get into the car or the train car or, whatever, and ride that track to glory.

But as is probably beginning to become clear.

Now as I describe it this way, that's not actually the type of activities that lead to the kind of growth that causes a teenager to be super impressed when they applied to college. If you think of this approach, it's really a situation that you'll hear from adults and you'll hear from college graduates, just the same as you'll hear from high school students or middle school students. The idea is no one is hiring and I can't find a job right now because I'm overqualified, I'm qualified, or whatever the reason might be in your mind. The complaint is still the same, no one is hiring. I can't find an opportunity. That is why I am so proud of my students in the ivy league challenge and why I'm so honored to be mentoring them through this process. Because the mindset is completely different. My students think differently. And I want to share with you, perhaps a tool that you can use as a teenager right now that you can begin to use to take more control of your success. Because I have talked about this issue before on this same podcast.

In previous episodes, I talked about how a lot of people assume that the students who get into ivy league schools are superheroes that they come from another planet that they've been bitten by a radioactive spider or something crazy that allowed them to be superhuman.

Because they are superhuman, they're able to accomplish more things at a younger age, and that's how they get in. And that's an awfully high bar to cross. Obviously, if you're a normal human being, then that's going to be very intimidating. And all of us are normal human beings. So I tried to bust that myth when I talked about my friends and my peers at Harvard, and actually, they were very normal people. If I'm totally honest, my opinion is there are two things that make them special. Number one, they have a mindset that says, if I don't have all the materials that I need to solve my problem now, then I can figure it out. And that mindset already changes the game. Right? If you have the mindset that says, I don't have all the skills that I need. I don't know everything that I need to know, but I know that I can figure it out. I don't have the tools, I don't have the skills, I don't have the equipment, and I don't know the people. But I know that I can figure it out. That mindset by itself is going to set you aside.

But the second thing that a lot of the students had in common is the idea that they had a mission, and it was their mission that made them great. They decided to step up to a challenge in life. They saw an injustice around them that violated one of their core values, and they decided to do something about it. They decided to lead a cause or to write a wrong. They decided to fight against some injustice. They decided to do research to solve a problem that was personally meaningful to them, because a family member or a friend suffered from something, and they could do research to try to find a way to alleviate that suffering.

So many of my friends had these two things, in common. I feel like those were the keys for them to get into a, very difficult to get into university Harvard university. When I hear parents or teenagers asking questions like, how can I land an internship? How can I land a research opportunity? How can I land a job? Right? I feel the same way. I feel like people are looking for an opportunity. They're looking for a set established path that someone else has laid for them. They can walk down. And too often, that's not good enough. That's not enjoyable. That's not as exciting. That's not as meaningful. And it's certainly not as impressive. But what is exciting? Knowing that you can figure it out, having that mindset shift. So here's what I teach my students to do in the ivy league challenge.

As you probably know, by now, if you've been listening to this podcast, we move through three phases in the ivy league challenge. Phase one is self-awareness. What are your core values? Your core drivers, what are your strengths? Your interests? You need to be self-aware and more thoughtful than you've ever been before. If you're going to stand out in your application, then we move into your impact project, which is phase two of the ivy league challenge. Once you identify your core values, look around in your community and identify a problem that violates one of those core values, decide to step up to the challenge and begin solving that problem. That's what we call your impact project.

And then in phase three, we teach our students how to strategically leverage their self-awareness and their impact project to have outstanding applications that do stand out and get them admitted to the colleges that they want to go to. But creating an impact project as you can probably understand, just by hearing me explain it very simply in this podcast. It does not involve finding or landing an opportunity. It's not about going out and finding a path that someone else has laid for you, then writing down that path. Instead, I teach my students in that transition period between phase one and phase two. I teach them this skill, and this is the skill that you need to adopt in order to create your own opportunities and ensure your own success. What I teach my students to do is become an investigative journalists, learn to ask better questions, learn to challenge the assumptions that they have about themselves, success, society, and their community, learn to challenge the assumptions and beliefs they have about the problem that you're going to solve.

At first, you are going to be naive about that problem. But as you ask better and better questions and you learn how to go find the best answers to those questions. You begin to understand the issues within the issues, right? You become less and less naive, more and more knowledgeable. Something magical happens. As you ask the right people, and questions, you find mentors, you find experts, you find professors, you find professionals, you find all kinds of amazing people who feel like you're outstanding. When you show them that you actually are on a mission that this is an issue that violates one of the core values and that you are committed to figuring out how to improve the situation for people that you care about, they will take you under their wing.

This is the exact same process you'll go through. If you are looking for a job, let me explain it this way. If I were looking for a job during the great depression of the 1930s, I would take advice from Dale Carnegie. Do you know the book how to win friends and influence people? It is written in really old English. It's a little bit difficult to get through. The story is amazing. He even talked about it in the book. The fact that during the 1930s, during the great depression, jobs were almost impossible to define. But one person that he highlighted was an unemployed, yet educated man who chose not to look for a job. He did not ask people for a job. What did he do? He walked into businesses and asked perspective employers, questions. He wanted those people to talk about themselves and he asked them for advice. Eventually, they started asking him questions as a result. He found work that works during the 1930s in the middle of the great depression. And it works today, and it works for a job and it works for an internship and it works for a research opportunity or to find a mentor or a guide.

I will tell you the same thing that I tell my students as they become investigative journalists. Because if you're looking for a job in a very difficult employment market, or if you're looking for an internship when the possibilities of finding opportunities are one in a thousand or one in 10,000, it's just so difficult to land, quote-unquote, an opportunity.

Let me tell you how my peers at Harvard did it. Let me tell you how my students in the ivy league challenge do it. And let me tell you how you can do it. Spend a little bit of time figuring out the kind of person that you want to speak with. Is it a doctor? Is it a dentist? Is it a scientist? Or an engineer? Is it a professor? Who is it that you want to talk to? Is it also once you've done just your preliminary research? Try this experiment. Just pick five places, do an hour's worth of homework, and find five CEOs slash professors, slash doctors slash ph ds slash experts that you want to talk to. And in the morning, walk into their place of work, you're going to face a gatekeeper, a secretary, or an assistant.

And you're going to say, I'd like to speak with the CEO I'd like to speak with a doctor, and so I'd like to speak with this professor or that professor. And they're going to ask, do you have an appointment? You say, no, I don't have an appointment, but I'd really like just 90 seconds of time if a window opens up. I'd like to ask them a question. I'd like to ask for some advice. And the assistant or the secretary is going to say the CEO is very busy, you're not going to be able to see him, or you're not gonna be able to see her. And you just approach it. No worries. That makes sense. I'm sure they're very, very busy, and I respect that. But if it's okay with you, I'll just try my luck. I brought a book and I'll just sit here. And if it works out super, maybe I'll get lucky. If the CEO happens to finish a meeting a few minutes early and has 90 seconds to spare, just even asking one question would be thrilling for me.

I'll just try my luck. Do the same thing with a professor, with a doctor, with a dentist, with whomever you want to get through to, and in whatever capacity. The gatekeeper will suggest that you go home or try to book an appointment. And each time just sit and wait, be polite, be kind, but read your book. And eventually, the gatekeeper begins to be chatty. And to my absolute amazement. And to my students, absolutely amazement that the 2-minute window that the 92nd window opens up every single time. Sometimes you'll see the CEO or the professor or the expert. And sometimes it will be someone else. It'll be the head of hr it will be a different doctor or a different dentist. It'll be an assistant researcher or the head of some other team or whatever else.

But regardless that window will open when you're polite and you're just reading, the gatekeeper realizes that you're not going anywhere, they become chatty, and they find out more about you. And somehow that window opens often much faster than you think it will. Each time it begins the same way, they're going to say, I only have a couple of minutes right now. I'm in the middle of this, or I'm in the middle of that. I'm on my way here, I'm on my way there. You just thank them sincerely. Express your absolute respect for that person's experience, and be genuine. I respect you so much for what you've done with your company, with your clinic, with your hospital, and with the research that you did that I found out about. If you've told the gatekeeper that you are writing an article for your school newspaper as a journalist, then that's fine. Keep that up. If not, that's okay, too. You can ask one iteration of the question. I am a high school student, I'm this age. I want to become what you are.

Now. If one day you woke up and you just went back in time and you were me, what would you do to increase the odds of becoming what you are now? What would you do to take advantage of opportunities that I don't realize exist yet? Where would you look for those opportunities? You ask some iteration of that question and listen because Dale Carnegie was right. People like to talk none of those 2-minute windows only last 2 minutes. They're going to last long enough for you to have meaningful contact and a surprising number of those contacts that you make are going to offer you something.

They're going to wonder if you can work for them, or if you can join their team, or if you can shadow them.

If you get them talking about things that they care about, they might suggest that you apply for a job or apply for an internship that isn't advertised, because it doesn't exist. They want you. They want you to shadow the team or they want you to be a part of the research. I hope you can see the difference here, whether you're looking for a job or you're looking for an internship, or you're looking for research, you're looking for a mentor or a Guide. The situation is the same right? Rather than looking for opportunities that someone else has paved. Realize what that means. If someone else has paved that opportunity, then that opportunity is designed to accomplish something. If a hospital has established an internship opportunity, then they are looking for high school students to do specific tasks within that internship. It is highly unlikely that you're going to do anything meaningful in that internship quote-unquote opportunity. If the business that you want to intern for has an opportunity for high school students, it's probably the same. You're going to be doing mostly meaningless work and your opportunity to grow and expand and contribute in meaningful ways is almost zero.

If instead, you approach PRO actively, you go and find the people and ask them, great questions become better and better and better. By helping them understand that you respect them and that you truly value their advice, you will get them talking.

Once they start talking, they're gonna feel like there's something likable about you. You don't have to do the talking, but when you listen really well, they respect you. They like you, and it leads to amazing opportunities. Look, this is true whether you're trying to land a new job as an adult, as a brand new college graduate, whether you're looking for your first internship as a high school student, or if you're a middle school or high school student, trying to find a mentor or a Guide in some area. That means a lot to you. My peers at Harvard were completely normal people. They're just like anybody else. The only difference is that mindset that they can figure this out, they can find a way to get the resources or learn the thing or develop the skill or whatever it is to overcome the Challenge. Number two, they choose a Challenge to rise up to. They choose to lead a cause. They choose a mission to stand up for.

And as you do those two things, as you identify your core values and who you are, you develop this mindset that everything is figured outable, you can figure it out. If you don't know it yet, you can ask better questions. You can be an investigative journalist. You can learn you can develop the skills and you can lead the charge, you can solve real problems in the real world. But guess what you're going to solve much bigger problems. When you connect with experts, how do you connect with experts? Not by looking for opportunities, certainly not by paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to join a research team. You connect with experts by learning to ask questions and learning to listen.