Observe behavior, then act accordingly

When I attended my first party as a new pledge in my college fraternity, a few older members were acting like stereotypical drunken buffoons, yelling at pledges and generally embarrassing themselves.

A member I really liked and admired (who went on to become a successful pediatrician) motioned to the bad examples and said to me:

“Kevin, I want you to observe peoples’ behavior while you’re here. Then act accordingly in the future.”

It was his way of saying, “Don’t act like people who are idiots. Emulate those you like and respect.”

It’s good advice that’s apparently shared by billionaire Warren Buffett.

Last Saturday, Buffett hosted around 40,000 people at the annual meeting for Berkshire Hathaway, the company he’s headed for 50 years.

A seventh grader who’d traveled from Florida asked:

How do you make lots of friends? And how do you get people to like you and work with you?

This article described Buffett’s response:

“Buffett offered a longer answer [than his business partner], explaining that he was also obnoxious early on but learned to change his behavior as he matured. He did this by copying those he admired and adopting the qualities they possessed. He even gave the youngster an exercise to do: List four things he liked about kids in his class and four things he disliked about them and model his behavior accordingly.”

The advice holds up before, during, and after college.

Important today…or tomorrow?

I personally counseled students at Collegewise from 1999 to 2006. And several times a year since I stopped, I’ll wonder about whatever happened to a particular student. Thanks to Google, that answer is never far away.

During these searches, I’ve yet to find one former student who doesn’t appear to be gainfully employed. But more importantly, as more time passes, more and more of those former kids show up with engagement announcements. Many have wedding and baby registries. They’re not kids anymore—they’re adults. And their respective former Collegewise parents are now in-laws and grandparents watching their extended families grow.

And I’ll wager that none of those former Collegewise kids or parents care one whit today about things that mattered so much in high school like SAT scores or whether or not USC, Yale, SMU, or UW said yes.

One of the challenges for a high school parent is for you and your kids to focus on what’s important today, while remembering what will be important tomorrow. Yes, the grade in algebra is important today. The SAT prep is important today. The activities, the topic for the college essay, and the admissions decisions from colleges, those things are certainly important today. Your kids’ education and their college prep deserve to be taken seriously.

But just because something is important today doesn’t mean that importance will last forever. The trick is to give these things–the grade in algebra, the SAT scores, and all things related to college–a healthy dose of attention and effort…then find comfort in the fact that the specific outcomes likely won’t matter that much some day. That’s why none of my “Whatever happened to….” searches ever mention those kids’ high school GPAs or test scores. And it’s why you’ve probably never met a fellow parent who’s still lamenting a denial they received from a particular college when they were 18. Bigger things await all of us after high school.

Focus on what’s important today. But remember that what’s important tomorrow will really be the good stuff. And one grade, test score, or college admissions decision won’t take that away.

Natural strengths

If you had to write a letter of recommendation for yourself, but you could only mention personal qualities—nothing about grades, test scores, activities, or anything else that you’d list on a college application—what would you say?

You’d probably pick your best qualities, the ones that come most naturally, that make you who you are, that your friends and family know and appreciate about you.

Whatever your answer would be, how could you do even more with those qualities today?

The more you develop your natural strengths, the happier and more successful you’re likely to be.

Pass it on

Seniors, you’re in the twilight of your high school career. My guess is that you feel a lot wiser today than you did when you showed up in 9th grade. Not just about college admissions, but about your high school, life as a teenager, what matters and what doesn’t, etc. You’ve had successes and failures, good days and bad. You would probably do some things differently if you had to repeat this process. Younger students could probably benefit a lot from what you’ve learned.

So why not share it with them?

Pick a younger student you think might actually listen and appreciate your perspective. No need to schedule a formal counseling session. A quick email might even be enough (and it lets the student refer back to it in the future).

What exactly you share doesn’t matter—everyone’s lessons are different. But, for example, you could answer these three questions and forward them to an appreciative younger student:

What do you wish someone had explained to you when you started high school?
What’s something that you would have done exactly the same way if you had to go back in time and start high school again?
What’s something you would have done differently knowing what you know now?

If all the graduating seniors did this, imagine how much good they could do for the younger students. Think about what you’ve learned. And before you graduate, pass it on.

The order matters

Author Simon Sinek argued in his book, Start with Why, that the order in which you do or say things matters. As he puts it, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it—so talk about why before you talk about what (see his TED Talk for Sinek’s full explanation).

And in this video, he gives another example of an instance where the order matters—when asking for a favor.

Have you ever gotten an email from someone out of the blue that makes a paragraph of small talk and then hits you with a request for a favor, like (I’m borrowing Sinek’s example here):

Dear Simon-
Haven’t seen you in years. Hope you’re well. Congratulations on all you’ve been doing. It’s really amazing. We should get coffee sometime. If you could do me a favor, if you could vote for me on this website, I’m hoping to win a thousand dollar prize for my new design…blah…blah…blah. Hope you’re well- Kenny

The pleasantries in the beginning aren’t effective because we know we’re being buttered up. And that’s why these kinds of emails often get deleted.

But what if the writer changed the order? What if he or she came right out and just asked for the favor, and then said the nice things?

Dear Simon-
I’m hoping you could vote for me on this website—I’m trying to win a thousand dollar prize for my design. I haven’t seen you in years. I hope you’re well. Congratulations on all you’ve been doing. We should get coffee sometime. Thanks, Kenny

If you come right out and ask for what you want, the pleasantries come across with a lot more sincerity.

You can watch the full video here (the portion about asking for favors starts at 25:30).

My goodbye to graduates

Today is graduation day for a lot of my blog readers. Not the official high school graduation, but, May 1, the final day for seniors to decide where they’ll be attending college next fall. When a student has made that decision or a parent finally knows the college fate of their last one to leave the nest, there’s no need to come back tomorrow for my advice about how to pick colleges or write the essay or maintain your sanity in what’s become an unnecessarily stressful process.

So, for those of you who will be moving on, here are my parting words.

To students:

First, congratulations. Whether or not you’re attending your first-choice school, you should celebrate today. You’re going to college. This is a big deal, one that many of you worked incredibly hard for. Take a second to enjoy it before you rush to think about what’s next. The stress, the applications, the waiting and wondering—it’s all over. Put the college sweatshirt on. This is the good stuff now.

Second, remember that you won’t get to do a first draft of college. This is it. You get four years. So really lean into them. Learn as much as you can. Grow as much as you can. Have as much fun as you can. Don’t be that person who looks back on college and wishes you’d done more to enjoy and benefit from it. Your college can offer all the opportunities and benefits you’d hoped for, but you’ll need to take advantage of them.

Take the time to thank your parents. If they’ve been driving you crazy and you can’t wait to get out of the house, thank them anyway. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is. I didn’t get that until I became a parent, myself, and you probably won’t, either. For now, just remember that while you may be a maturing adult now who’s ready to be out on your own, for most of your life you literally and figuratively could not have survived without your parents. Thank them now and you’ll be really proud of your maturity when you look back on this act years later. Really, trust me on this.

To parents:

Parents, congratulations to you, too. You’re officially sending your kid to college. One of the worst symptoms of college stress is that too few parents feel compelled to celebrate that milestone the way your parents did (or would have). But this is as big a deal today as it was in my day, your day, and every day before that. Do a parental high-five and soak this in.

Also, if your kids aren’t being all that nice and appreciative now, remember how little you knew at 18. They haven’t been on the planet that long. College and life will go a long way to mending this.

Remember that you get to demand a certain level of collegiate performance from your student, especially if you’re paying the bill. But consider demanding it in ways that aren’t measured just in GPAs and impressive accomplishments. You might consider bookmarking these past posts and emailing them to your kids after their first week of college.

How do you make the most of college?
How to build a remarkable college career
Turn college into career prep

And for everyone, I have a favor to ask.

I started writing this blog every day in 2009 because I wanted families to enjoy the process that you’ve just finished. If you’ve read and benefitted from what I share here, please pass it along to the next crop of college-goers. Tell a younger friend about it. Share it with a parent who’s about to go through this with their own son or daughter. Or just forward a particular post that really helped you. Those of us who are trying to change college admissions have to stick together, so when you move on, I need to add new members to the band.

And finally, thank you for reading. It’s a privilege for me to be able to do this, and I hope it helped you enjoy your ride to college a little more.

Good luck, and have a great time in college.

Doing more vs. getting better?

When Collegewise is presented with a potential opportunity—a new marketplace to enter, a company we can partner with, a new population of customers we can serve, etc.—I’m usually the first to push back and ask why we wouldn’t channel that time and energy into getting better at what we’re already doing.

Nobody has unlimited time and energy, so successful people and businesses have to be disciplined about how they choose to spend their available time. There are always other opportunities available for any of us. They might legitimately be exciting or profitable or just plain fun. But every minute you spend doing those things is a minute you didn’t spend working on whatever is already on your plate.

I’m not arguing against taking on new projects or challenges (if I were, Collegewise would be the same one-person shop it was when I started it in 1999). But I try to apply this discipline whenever we have a potential opportunity in front of us so we can have a good discussion about how we should choose to spend our time and energy.

Should we spend our time and energy to go into a new marketplace, or should we focus on making the offices we already have even more successful?

Should we do the work to form a partnership with a new company, or could we bring even more value to the relationships we already have?

Should we pursue a population of customers we don’t already serve, or should we find new and better ways to delight the people who are already choosing to hire us?

Sometimes pursuing the new opportunity is the right choice, especially when you realize you do have available time, or that you’re already excelling at what you’re doing. For me, those are also often the times that my business partners help remind me that some opportunities need to be taken advantage of.  But in other scenarios, it’s best to focus on the battles you’re already in. And in some cases, you can actually find a way to do both. But the discipline to even ponder the choice is still valuable.

Just because you have an opportunity doesn’t always mean you should take it. So ask yourself if it’s best to do more, or to get even better at what you’re already doing.

Parents wanted! We’re hiring community organizers

*Are you a parent who believes there is too much anxiety surrounding the college admissions process?

*Can you organize and lead people who care about the same things you care about?

*Would you like to make a difference in your high school and community by helping families enjoy a more successful, less stressful, ride to college?

If so, you might be interested in partnering with your local Collegewise office as a community organizer.

We’re currently hiring in:
Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Calabasas, California
Columbus, Ohio
New York, New York
Ridgewood, New Jersey
Washington, D.C.

It’s part-time, you set your own hours, and you work remotely or from home. And in case this is starting to sound like one of those dubious job postings normally posted to a street sign, really, this is a legitimate gig working with your local Collegewise office where you can make a difference for high school students and parents in your community.

To apply:
For more information, including the specific responsibilities, pay, and the directions to apply, please visit our website here.

We hope to hear from you!

Do it the easy way

A high school student doesn’t always need to do something difficult to learn a lot, make an impact, and impress colleges. Sometimes the easy way is the best way.

Yes, you could pay to travel over the summer to do volunteer work in South America. Or you could volunteer at a local non-profit right in your hometown.

Most of the material you might learn in an expensive summer program could also be learned in a local course, or in a free online offering, or from a book, or even on YouTube.

You could spend many hours and late nights studying for your next trig exam. Or you could spend ten minutes after you do your trig homework each night and pretend that you now have to teach the material back to an imaginary class.

You could spend your days frantically trying to fulfill your commitments in a long list of activities. Or you could prune that list and commit only to a few things that mean the most to you.

You could spend your high school years working hard to please those ultra-selective colleges that are most likely to deny you (and most of the other students who apply). Or you could work just as hard, but find colleges that are predisposed to appreciate what you have to offer, and who in return are most likely to offer you admission.

Sometimes easier is actually much better.

Vince Lombardi was wrong

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” I don’t believe it—for kids in high school, or anyone trying to do good work and make a difference.

We killed a project this week at Collegewise, a guideline that five of our counselors had spent a lot of time working on. It was a good idea, and one that if executed well probably would have been downloaded thousands of times like many of the other resources we’ve created.

But the project wasn’t turning out like they’d hoped. It had dragged on through several iterations. Each round of revisions just made it clear that it wasn’t becoming the fantastic piece they’d hoped it would be, and they didn’t see the path to getting there.

This happens in projects. It happens in most things worth doing. It’s exciting and fun at the beginning until it gets to the difficult part. And then you have to make a decision—bear down and come out the other side, or bail out?

So we asked some hard questions. Do we see a way to make this as great as we’d hoped it would be? If we can’t do that, can we still make a version that’s good enough for us and for the people who might use it? And if the answer to either of those questions is yes, will that outcome be worth the time, energy, and focus of everyone involved?

Honest answers made it clear that it was time to move on. And whatever feelings of letdown our counselors had will likely soon be replaced by the freeing realization that they can refocus on other things. In fact, one of those counselors was on a team that just shared one of the best internal training documents I’ve ever seen at Collegewise. That’s how we want to feel when we gut it out through the hard part of a worthy project.

The message here isn’t that you should quit anything when it gets difficult (that’s why there are good quitters and bad quitters, something I’ve written about before here and here). But successful people quit things all the time. They just do it for the right reasons—so they can focus their time and energy into those things that they can finish, that have the biggest impact for them personally or professionally, and that will leave that wonderful feeling of working though the hard part and enjoying the completion on the other side.