Back to Podcast Index →

The Impressiveness Trap




It is natural and understandable that teens want to find ways to impress admissions officers.
And yet... that desire to impress often leads to the exact opposite effect.

So what can we do instead?

It's not what you expect.


Ready for the Ivy League Challenge?


Take the Challenge


Too many people are overwhelmed, stressed out, and frustrated about college admissions prep. I created this podcast to help you build a standout college profile and boost your confidence. Enjoy!

– Steve Gardner, Founder

Listen to my podcast

Listen to other podcasts 

Success Mindset

The right mindset can ensure your success. Listen to begin building your own winning mindset now. 

Start listening

Build Your Confidence 

When everyone else is trying to fit in or go with the flow, learn how you can develop the confidence you need to blaze your own successful path. 

Start listening

Reduce Stress & Anxiety 

Stories, research, real-life examples... Listen to learn how my Harvard peers and I faced stress and overwhelm. 

Start listening

How to Stand Out 

Hard work and great test scores are not enough- but what kind of admissions prep activities will help you get in? It's not what you think... 

Start listening

Admissions Strategy 

Essays, rec. letters, curriculum choices, college visits, research, test scores, and more. Don't wear yourself out with a bad strategy.  

Start listening

Succeed In High School 

The best college prep will ensure you thrive in middle school & high school. Don't settle for stressful, unhelpful college prep advice. 

Start listening

Would you like to be notified when new episodes are launched in your favorite category?

Yes, sign me up



Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

As I'm recording this, current seniors are finishing up the last touches of their regular decision applications and trying to figure out how to word things or what to describe or what to say to come across as impressive as possible. Of course, this is not something that is unique to college applications or college admissions. Trying to become impressive is really natural and really normal and completely understandable.

But actually, when you look underneath the surface, you realize that impressiveness is a trap. If your goal is to impress someone, like an admissions officer or a teacher, a parent, your mentor, your friends, or even your crush, right? If your goal is to impress someone, oftentimes you end up trying too hard and accomplish the exact opposite. Nowhere is that more true than in the impressiveness trap that happens with college admissions.

So I want to take a minute today and talk about why we fall into this trap, what the trap actually is, and what we can do instead. Like I mentioned in an earlier podcast about how to write outstanding college application essays, one of the most common things for students to do is to use their essays to try to impress their admissions officers. They do this in a couple of really common ways.

One of those is to choose their most impressive activity and then talk about it in some new way. Another really common strategy that students use is they'll try to kind of slip in really impressive details into their essays or into their resume to just try to get across the point that they've actually done some really impressive things. Of course, the goal is to impress the readers, impress the admissions officers.

Totally understandable, right? My two kids are five years old and seven years old, and I don't know how much time we have left, but I really cherish I love the time that I have where they want me to watch everything. They want me to be impressed. If they score a basket in basketball, they hope that I've seen it.

And in fact, if I'm not watching, they might say, Daddy, look over here. Watch, watch me, watch me, watch me. Why are they saying this? Why? Because it's totally natural for kids to want to impress their parents.

And I would say that it's completely natural for a lot of the people who listen to my podcast to continue working hard to impress the adults in their lives. And these are parents, these are teachers, these are coaches, and of course, these are admissions officers. And what ends up happening is this desire to impress actually creates a real fear of disappointing those people that they admire.

Let me play you a clip with permission from a student in the Ivy League Challenge who talked about this during our online course. I just wanted to say one thing that really scares me is I'm afraid that I will disappoint my family and yeah, my family, if I don't get in. It's one thing I know I'll be disappointed in myself, right? I'll be sad.

But it galls me to think my family believes in me. They think I would be afraid to try also because I don't want to disappoint them. And she's not the only one.

So many people in the class immediately responded through text and said, yep, that's me, that's me, that's me. And I know that many others can relate to that as well. As I've taught the Ivy League Challenge so many times and met so many students who are amazing, amazing human beings.

The kinds of people who really are going to change the world for the better, the kinds of people who make me feel like the future of our planet is in good hands. So many of them have a real fear of disappointing the people that they've always wanted to impress. So what happens because of that? Well, that turns into a fixed mindset.

The fixed mindset is this idea that if you believe that intelligence is fixed or that talent is fixed, like, we're born with some innatability, we're born with some talent or some level of intelligence, and that's what allows us to perform well. If we believe that about ourselves, then we're going to hesitate to try new things. Why? Because, as we've talked about before in my master class, about building confidence for teenagers, you have to be willing to be bad at something first if you're ever going to be great.

And the fixed mindset says my excellence is what makes me valuable, right? And so I can never do things that might expose me as being less excellent or less impressive, because then my innate value disappears, or at least my perceived value and my ability to impress the people that I care about impressing is gone, right? They'll see me for a fraud, and I'll be exposed for what I really am, someone less impressive, less intelligent, less talented than I want them to think I am. So this fixed mindset is actually really, really dangerous. It's something that we should guard against as parents and as teachers in very young children.

We should be really careful to emphasize effort, emphasize focus, emphasize trying again, emphasize that mistakes are a common and important and necessary part of learning and growing and becoming great. It's valuable to model this behavior in front of our children by saying, wow, I've never tried this before. I think it might be hard at first, but I'm going to try it.

And even though I'll be bad at first, I know that I can't figure it out unless I try it first. So let me try this. And just modeling that behavior and talking yourself through it in front of young children helps them to understand that it's totally normal to be bad at something first and that's what allows you to be great at something later.

Well, the same thing is healthy with preteens, with teenagers and for that matter, with adults. So the first way that this intention to impress others traps us is it creates a fear of disappointing the people that we've always wanted to impress. That leads to a fixed mindset that says it's my excellence, that makes me valuable, right? My talent, my intelligence, my skills.

That's what makes me valuable, that's what makes me impressive. And of course, when we adopt that fixed mindset, we become more reactive. We miss those opportunities for growth because we're not willing to be bad at something first.

And then of course, what happens next is we become more reactive, right? We start to look around and say well, so and so got into my dream college. They were impressive by doing X, so now I need to go do what they did. And we start to believe that in order to impress the admissions officers, in order to get in, to be qualified to be good enough to get in, we need to do what other people before us have done.

And this again, what happens here. Of course these top universities don't want 2000 clones of the same person and if they already have one of those students who did those things, then they're highly unlikely to want another one, right? They want you to be you so that you can shine for your own core values. And we'll talk about that in just a second.

But the other thing that happens besides trying to copy other people's resumes which of course what immediately happens when we try to become excellent by doing what other people did without recognizing or acknowledging the fact that those people were aligned with their core values and that's why they were able to be great, right? It's not so much the activities that you do, it's the level of depth that you go into those activities which happens naturally when you're truly interested, when you're inspired, when you're driven by core values and you have some other elements in place. You have enough time in your day to pursue that curiosity. You have enough support.

You have enough of a growth mindset to be willing to be bad first, to pay your dues, to build relationships, to build trust and to get the support of other people. There are a number of other factors that lead to someone becoming outstanding in any given field. But one of those critical factors is the fact that you're genuinely interested, that you're driven by your own core values.

Because if you're trying to compensate for a lack of core values, lack of genuine interest, and you're trying to compensate through willpower or self discipline, there's no chance that you can keep up with someone else who is internally driven and so what happens? We give up on that and we decide that, well, they're good enough, but I'm clearly not good enough. We begin to disengage from school or begin to disengage from our admissions ambitions, or the other way that we become more reactive is we decide that we want to fit in because there must be a, quote unquote right way to stand out. And that means we need to do the exact same things that everyone else is doing.

Take the same advanced classes, take the same tests, get really good grades, demonstrate leadership in as many ways as possible, and create some kind of wow factor, right? We have this kind of recipe for success in admissions, something that I've talked about over and over and over again on this podcast. But we buy into that myth again, right? That there's one way to be the right way to stand out. And what we must do is do exactly what everyone else is doing.

And the way we stand out is by doing those things better than everyone else. Which of course, the exact same downward spiral of eventually not measuring up and then feeling like you're not good enough and disengaging and all of the things that we just described. That is the impressiveness trap.

This idea that if we start out by trying to be impressive and as we think about how we should approach college admissions, we think in terms of what's going to be more impressive to the admissions officer, then this is the trap that we are setting for ourselves. It is not going to end well. So what's the solution? As I've talked about before, we need to go deeper into what drives you, into what inspires you the most.

You need to spend time being reflective and identifying your core values. And yes, I realize that's challenging. Most of the adults in your world, your parents, most likely, your teachers most likely have never put the time in to figure out their core values.

But even as a early teenager, your prefrontal cortex has begun developing. You have the ability to perform what's called metacognition. Stepping outside of yourself and seeing how you think and watching yourself, observing yourself, experience emotion and experience thought.

That process is accessible to you at a very young age. And you can learn your core values. That becomes powerful because instead of looking around at what everyone else is doing and trying to fit in, you can look inside to your own core values and you can be proactive and you can decide.

Here's the key. You can decide what really matters most. The problem with the impressiveness trap is you think that being impressive is what matters most.

It's not. In fact, you need to identify your core values so that you can create a vision of success. You can decide for you what matters most.

Because until you decide what matters most to you, it becomes really challenging to know how to behave and how to perform on a daily basis. If, for example, you decide that growth is one of your core values, that is in direct conflict with trying to be impressive. Because of what we talked about earlier, growth occurs only when we are willing to be bad at something first.

And if you are stuck on trying to be impressive, you're going to crowd out your core value of growth. And because you've suffocated that core value, you're going to disengage. You're going to eventually hate school and you're going to want to spend more and more time in social media and binge watching Netflix or Disney Plus or whatever, right? You're going to get engaged in those activities that are kind of escape activities.

Rather than engaging in your day, you're going to look forward to being able to escape from your day. Why? Not because that's your natural tendency, but because you've spent so much of your time suffocating your core values. So it's important to decide what matters most to you and then make courageous decisions that align with what matters most.

Let go of impressiveness and pursue authenticity. Pursue interestingness, pursue curiosity. Far more important than being impressive in college admissions is to figure out how to be interesting, how to fascinate the admissions officers.

And you only do that by really going deep into the things that you care most about. Two more ideas that I think are really, really important. Here.

The first is it's important to start small and build momentum. If we plan to become interesting or fascinating now, instead of becoming impressive, we're going to again think about and plan far into the future and plan for these grandiose ideas. But if you try to jump high enough to touch the stars that your feet will never leave the ground.

It's just you're going to spend so much time preparing. Instead, just explore. Be curious, explore what is interesting to you.

Explore what fascinates you. Start small and then build momentum. Go deeper.

As you go, as you are exploring those things that fascinate you and that you're curious about, shift your focus towards meaningful impact. So try to understand how the things that you're curious about and the things that you're fascinated by, try to understand how those things interact with your communities. And as you explore that, focus on how you can make a meaningful impact.

Above all, your ability to impact the world for the better is one of the greatest ways to motivate you, to help you build confidence, to keep you engaged in this activity that you're currently curious about or maybe even moving towards fascinated about. But that's the way to build passion and really go deep is to focus on meaningful impact. How can your studies and your behaviors and your activities, how can those things impact your community for the better? Then, when the timing is right, add academic elements to that.

Things like your own independent research, because colleges are academic institutions. Expanding your meaningful impact through academic elements is a really, really good idea. Bottom line, most people who listen to my podcast are attracted to this podcast because they're ambitious, because they want to do great things in the world.

And one of the common traps that you're going to find over and over and over again is that many of these same people are stuck in the impressiveness trap. Let this podcast be your way out of the impressiveness trap. Rather than trying to impress the people around you, try to look inside and figure out what is truly most important to you.

When you decide what matters most, then align your life courageously with those core values. Start small and build momentum and focus on meaningful community impact. When the timing is right, add academic elements and you become naturally unbelievably, fascinating.

And ironically, by avoiding the attempt to be impressive, you become far more admirable, far more impressive to exactly the people that you were hoping to impress in the first place.