Are results everything?

It’s easy to justify a lot of behaviors, particularly during the college admissions process, by pointing to one result.

Your ACT score went up five points. You earned a 4.0 GPA. You got into the college of your choice. What’s more important than those results?

What if those 50 hours of prep cost your family more money than they could afford? What if you spent less time doing something you love like playing the clarinet? What if you alienated your teachers and fellow students with a get-an-A-at-any-cost mentality? Were the side effects worth it?

Don’t just consider the results. Consider the side effects, too.

Acting as if

You probably see roles or opportunities that you wish were available to you. Team captain, shift manager, a valued team member or trusted confidant or even a leader. Whatever the goal, you’ll reach it faster if you start acting as if.

How would a team captain behave before they were actually the captain? Here’s what they don’t do—wait in the background, more concerned with their own success than they are the team’s, but resolving to change that behavior if they get the captain’s nod. The path to becoming the team captain is to behave like one.

I’m not suggesting you usurp or undermine existing authority. You’re not acting as if you’ve already been elected club president. You’re acting as if you were someone who will one day be elected club president. What does that person do, today, tomorrow, and the week after that? Whatever the answer, that’s where you want to go.

You learn, you get experience, and you demonstrate your potential when you’re acting as if.

Like they were in the room

Here’s a quick but effective way to improve the mood, trust, and overall team health of your group—talk about people like they were in the room.

Your club, your organization, your counseling office–wherever you and others come together to do work you care about, make the decision to talk about people as if they were there in the room with you. Don’t drag one person’s work or reputation through the coals just because you think their absence brings you immunity. When you disparage someone who isn’t present, you’re not just doing damage to them. You’re damaging your reputation. You’re damaging morale. And you’re damaging the mutual trust and respect that’s vital to the health and success of any group.

It’s simple, it’s free, and best of all, it’s your choice.

Forthcoming forgiveness

Students, parents, employees–even the most well-intentioned of us screw up occasionally. And when others are affected, those moments are a perfect opportunity to build your reputation rather than to break it.

Yesterday, Basecamp, the project management software used by hundreds of thousands of people, including me and my team at Collegewise, went down for five hours. Basecamp allows users to do everything around a project, from posting and editing files, to communicating with team members, to assigning and tracking to-do’s. Used as intended, you don’t have to rely on other services for file sharing, for group chat, or even for email. Basecamp does it all. That’s their sell. If you used the tool exactly as they encourage you to do, five hours is a long time to be without it, especially if you have a lot of people working on an important project. It also turned out that the malfunction was entirely avoidable.

And yet, by the time the problem was fixed, Basecamp’s reputation as a tool and a company appeared to be even stronger than it was before. How did they pull that off? I saw five components to their approach:

1. They alerted all of their users right away. They didn’t wait for people to reach out to their help lines just to learn that software was temporarily down.

2. They continued to update their users with information and estimates about when the problem would be fixed.

3. Each of these updates was detailed and shared seemingly all of the information available at the time of the posting.

4. They never said or wrote that truly awful phrase, “We apologize for any inconvenience.”

5. Their CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson, stepped up and took personal responsibility for the problem. Here are some excerpts from his post after the problem had been fixed:

“All in, we were stuck in read-only mode for almost five hours. That’s the most catastrophic failure we’ve had at Basecamp in maybe as much as a decade, and we could not be more sorry. We know that Basecamp customers depend on being able to get to their data and carry on the work, and today we failed you on that…We’ve let you down on an avoidable issue that we should have been on top of. We will work hard to regain your trust, and to get back to our normal, boring schedule of 99.998% uptime…It’s embarrassing to admit, but the root cause of this issue with running out of integers has been a known problem in our technical community…We should have known better. We should have done our due diligence when this improvement was made to the framework two years ago. I accept full responsibility for failing to heed that warning, and by extension for causing the multi-hour outage today. I’m really, really sorry.”

The steps are less important than the overarching approach. They cared. They communicated. They empathized. They brought a human to the forefront instead of hiding behind company layers. And most importantly, someone stood up, took responsibility, and sincerely apologized.

After Hansson posted his explanation and apology, the comments and social media feeds filled with users’ expressions of forgiveness, encouragement, and even praise for both Hansson and Basecamp. Here’s a screenshot:



You’ll screw up (or do so again) one day. It happens to everyone, often in spite of the best efforts or intentions. When it happens, run towards—not away from—the responsibility. Apologize to people who were affected and acknowledge that you understand what the mistake meant for them. Resolve to do better and mean it.

Whether you’re just one person who let down a friend or a company who let down thousands of customers, forgiveness will almost certainly be forthcoming if you handle the mistake correctly.

Seek the light

When brainstorming a college essay with a Collegewise student, our counselors know when a topic has real potential—the moment a student lights up when telling us about it.

That pure, involuntary spark in a student’s face and voice when they tell us all about their favorite class, that one achievement of which they’re most proud, the feeling when they learned they’d been promoted to “shift leader” at their part-time job–whatever it is, genuine emotion cannot be faked. It draws the listener in, wanting to hear even more about the experience that’s generating that reaction right in front of us. And that’s exactly the feeling a good college essay should inspire in the reader.

The best college essays don’t necessarily have to be about positive experiences—they just need to be sincere, engaging, and an effective way for a reader to get to know the real student behind the application. But when the words come freely and easily during a brainstorming session, when the student seems eager to share more, and especially when we see their mood and energy improve, the topic on the table is the fuel that caused the change. And that’s almost always a tale worth exploring for essay potential.

For students writing essays for your applications, seek this light. Go towards those topics that don’t require a lot of cajoling for you to find, and even better, those that you enjoy discussing and exploring with an interested listener.

And for students progressing through your younger high school years, seek this light. Go towards those subjects and teachers who inspire you to learn more. Go towards those activities you’d choose to do even if they had no bearing on your future college applications. Go towards opportunities and experiences that inspire you to bring your best self and work over those you do out of obligation.

Imagine how many stories you’d have to tell when you apply to college. And imagine how much more successful and enjoyable the journey to that time will be.


A student applying to college is trying to communicate:

I’m ready and excited for college.
I’ll make an impact inside and outside of the classroom.
I’m resilient enough to forge through difficulties.
I’ll take full advantage of the opportunities available to me.
I’ll enjoy learning from and interacting with the faculty.
I’m prepared for the independence of college.

How do you think those messages land if you also communicate:

But when I have a question for the admissions office, my parents always call for me.

The more involved parents are in the college admissions process, the less involved the student is. And that message is incongruous with everything a student is trying to communicate in their application.

Make good bets

We tend to make better decisions if we separate the decision from the outcome.

Imagine you’re walking to school. You’re confronted by an aggressive dog, so you move to the other side of the street. A car speeds past you and splashes muddy water all over your clothing.

Did you make a bad decision moving to the other side of the street? No. The decision and the outcome are two separate entities. You acted based on the best available information and options at the time. The fact that things later went awry doesn’t change the quality of the past decision.

This works the other way, too. Imagine you’d instead decided to approach the dog and provoke it, causing it to run away. A few more steps down the sidewalk, you find $100 you wouldn’t have found if you’d crossed the street.

Did you make a good decision? Actually, no. You made a terrible decision based on the information and options. You just got lucky that things turned out well.

This happens all the time in all areas of your life. My wedding rehearsal dinner took place at a wonderful restaurant that had no air conditioning during one of the hottest summer days in Seattle’s recorded history. Did we make a bad decision booking that place months earlier? No. It was a great decision based on what we knew at the time, which did not include an accurate weather forecast months in the future.

For many families, the intense focus on admissions-related outcomes causes them to conflate those outcomes with the decisions that led them. But losing an election does not mean you made a bad decision to run. The fact that you didn’t enjoy performing in the school play doesn’t mean you made a bad decision to audition.

And while we’re at it, another student’s acceptance to your dream school does not necessarily mean they made a good decision with their choice of essay topic, or that you should follow suit. They might have been admitted in spite of that topic (only the admissions readers who were in the room know why that student was admitted). Don’t assume the decision created the outcome.

Decisions are like bets. Making a smart one increases the likelihood of a good outcome. But it almost never guarantees it.

So stack the deck in your favor. Do the work, be informed, and make your decision based on what’s in front of you at the time.

But if the outcome isn’t what you’d hoped for, don’t punish yourself or the decision. It might just mean that your smart bet met bad luck.

For more on this, poker champion and business consultant Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts is an excellent read.

Losing sleep

Overachieving, overscheduled students—here’s a scenario. Imagine your top colleges of choice announced their intention to give special admissions consideration to students who averaged 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Would you need to make changes in your life to maintain that advantage? If so, what would you do?

Would you cut out that sixth activity that just doesn’t mean that much to you?

Would you shut out the distractions while you study so you could really focus and get more done in less time?

Or would you have to entirely rethink the way you’re currently scheduled, maybe by scaling back your APs or your test prep or your activities?

Whatever your answer, maybe you should consider making that change now?

Losing sleep almost never makes us, our health, or our work results any better.