Leave them better off

I’ve never seen private college counseling as a competition between businesses. There are plenty of kids applying to college, and for those who want to pay for assistance, the more good options they have, the better. That’s why Collegewise doesn’t try to stop competitors from joining our free webinars, attending our sessions at conferences, or downloading our free materials. We can all learn, share, and work together to make our profession better.

And sometimes making the profession better means pointing out areas where those in the profession need to be better.

This week, my colleagues and a number of counselors and admissions officers in our industry were chagrined to see a competitor charging $2500 for a “Postmortem Evaluation.” The email, which appears to have been sent to a potential customer who then shared it with the headline, “Um, no thanks,” promises the buyer will “…come away with a firm understanding of why you didn’t get in early and what needs to be changed the regular decision round so you’ll have a better result to earn admission to the best school possible” (worth noting that I cleaned up several punctuation and capitalization issues in the email).

Can a qualified counselor review a previously submitted application and point out areas of potential improvement for future submissions? Yes. Collegewise works with families who approach us for that kind of feedback. But “postmortem” seems extreme. Let’s not compare a college denial with death.

More troublingly, this competitor can’t tell any student why they weren’t admitted to a college. And neither can we. We can hypothesize. We can make educated guesses based on years of experience. Your high school counselor can almost certainly give you the same feedback, and in fact, they often have even more insight because they can talk to the college. But I’m not sure any of us can offer a “firm understanding” of the specific reasons for the denial.

The only people who can tell you with certainty why you weren’t admitted to a college are the admissions officers who read the file, who were part of the discussion, and who were in the room when the decision was made. And even if they were available for hire to tell you, they often would not be able to point to specific shortcomings that can be fixed. The applicant pools at some schools are so competitive that you can be turned away having done nothing wrong, and even having done everything right.

It wouldn’t have been that hard to tell this student something like:

“If you’d like to engage our services for some feedback on your application, especially the kind that you might be able to use for your remaining apps, we’d be happy to help. But I should tell you that the fact you got deferred doesn’t necessarily mean that you did anything wrong. At competitive schools like this, students often get deferred when their application and essays really were the best reflections of them. If that’s the case, we’d tell you so, and we’d give you your money back. I’d hate to see you make changes if what you have is already great.”

Fellow counselors, let’s all remember that we’re dealing with teenagers who are immersed in a process that has become unnecessarily high-stakes and infused with pressure. Let’s remember that we owe it to them to know what we’re talking about and to be honest when we don’t have the knowledge they’re seeking. And most importantly, let’s try to leave those families we engage with better off than when they arrived, whether or not they decide to hire us.

Engaged without worry

It would be easy, particularly for a new reader to this blog, to get the sense that I’m encouraging kids to be less engaged with their college planning.

Don’t overschedule yourself. Get enough sleep. Stop obsessing over famous colleges. Don’t polish every perceived weakness. Your GPA and test scores don’t define you. It’s all going to be OK.

But there’s a big difference between the student who puts forth care and effort and feels good about it regardless of the outcome and the student who didn’t care enough to put in any effort at all.

There’s a big difference between “Math is not my best subject, so I’m thrilled with a B” and “I don’t try in my math class because I hate that subject.”

There’s a big difference between a student who gets excited about all the opportunities available at a non-famous college that admits most of its applicants and a student who chooses their colleges based on which have the easiest applications to complete.

It’s your future, and it deserves to be thoughtfully considered as you make both small and large choices, from how you spend your time today, to where you go to college, to what you do while you’re there.

But it’s also important to remember that your future hasn’t happened yet. It’s a constant work in progress, rarely defined or even heavily impacted by one event for a high school student. It will construct itself through the choices, learning, and experiences that add up as a sum total from your days, months, and years. If you don’t engage at all, you’ll have some ground to make up later.

If you can treat today like just one step in many, you’ll make the appropriate efforts without all the unnecessary pressure. That’s the best way to engage without worry.

Skirt this law

Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” For students with college applications that still need to be completed over the holiday break, I recommend you skirt that law.

Time (real or perceived) in front of you can chip away at your sense of urgency for a project. Even worse, it opens the door to too many excuses that slow or outright halt your progress.

“This can wait until tomorrow.”

“I don’t have any good ideas for this essay.”

“I’ll spend today just getting organized (but not doing any of the actual work).”

As those excuses add up, the work completed does not. And eventually, you’re up against the deadlines, stressed and scrambling to complete work you only recently had seemingly enough time to complete. And your holiday break transforms into no break at all.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Imagine your dream college guaranteed you admission provided you: (1) submitted all your applications one week from today, and (2) ensured every application reflected your best effort.

What would you do for the next seven days? You’d find a way. You’d finish applications that were as good as they could possibly be, applications that made you proud, and you’d still have plenty of holiday left.

Why not do that right now?

Imagine the relief you’d feel. Imagine the peace of mind of meeting that artificial deadline, sleeping on it, and coming back the next day for one more review, one last bonus time. Imagine how much better your applications would be if you put that much focus and effort into them for the next seven days.

And best of all, imagine the relief of pushing “Submit” with time left to enjoy a chunk of your holiday break.

Work expands to fit the space allotted to complete it. Skirt that law by giving yourself less space.

Hang in there—it’ll be OK

Many high school students received their early admission decisions this week. And to encourage those who got news that wasn’t what they’d hoped, CNN anchor and Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper tweeted some reassuring words. But what I really appreciated were the responses from successful people who’d experienced their own college rejections as high school students. And two in particular stood out (links take you to past posts I’ve written about them).

Jon Favreau








Chris Sacca








Find a way to contribute

A friend of mine who went to graduate school to earn an MBA at Columbia recalled how ill-equipped he felt for the heavy load of finance courses. And this mathematical discrepancy between him and many of his peers was never more apparent than during the study groups that formed. Those who came from finance and accounting backgrounds could run numerical circles around him, and he didn’t want the group to feel like he was benefiting without contributing.

So he brought snacks. Lots of them.

At every group meeting, he’d inevitably show up with all of the group’s favorites. When they’d struggle with an assignment around capital budgeting and initial cash outlay, he’d chime in, “Who wants Oreos?” to the delight of the sleep-deprived group.

And he kept getting invited back. For two years, he was warmly welcomed. And his contributions were always appreciated regardless of their nutritional value.

The message here is not to seek the easy way out and let other people do the work. But making an impact sometimes means finding a way to do so even when you’re not the strongest member, whether it’s with an MBA study group or the JV cross country team.

You’ll be appreciated, and you’ll keep getting invited back, when you find a way to contribute.

Getting in (to a famous college)

Seth Godin’s latest podcast episode, Getting In (to a Famous College), manages to explain how to get into a famous college, point out the risks of playing that game, and recommend alternative paths, all in just 30 minutes. It’s worth a listen for anyone who aspires to chase, or to detach from, that coveted offer of admission. That link will let you listen on his website, but for other options, click here. His delivery is a little slow for my taste, so I speed the play up to 1.5x speed.

Diminishing returns of overwork

Given that your average college-bound student probably works at least 40 hours per week between school, homework, and activities, you might check out this article and consider the referenced research that shows:

  • Working more doesn’t mean working better.
  • Productivity dramatically decreases with longer hours and drops off completely at 55 hours per week.
  • On average, someone working 70 hours a week achieves no more than a colleague working 15 fewer hours.

If your biggest achievement is simply how many hours you work, fewer hours spent working just might lead to bigger achievements.

What straight-A students get wrong

Adam Grant’s recent New York Times op-ed, “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” is pitched to college students. But just about all of the messages contained within (1) are equally true for high school students, and (2) make some people deeply uncomfortable.

You can see it in the article’s comments. The defensiveness and outright anger from current and former straight-A students (and the parents of those in both groups) is palpable. But many of those readers missed the point.

Grant isn’t arguing that learning isn’t important, that academics don’t deserve attention, or that lofty goals aren’t worthy of pursuit. He’s arguing that chasing perfection for perfection’s sake is too narrow and restrictive. He’s arguing that students’ current and future potential aren’t encapsulated in a perfect GPA. And he’s arguing that budding greatness might be better nurtured by more time spent developing the person and less time spent perfecting the person’s transcript. Some students can do both simultaneously. But it’s worth pausing occasionally to check your balance.

For more on this, see my past post, “You can’t earn straight A’s in life,” and “What happens to high school valedictorians?

The psychology of choosing gifts, and colleges

“How Psychology Can Help You Choose a Great Gift,” published by UC Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center, offers four tips to better gift giving:

1. Choose practicality over expense or quality.
Usable beats fancy in the long run.

2. Go for long-term satisfaction, not initial enthusiasm.
Parents have all seen a child react with joy to a new toy they abandon by the end of the day. Choose gifts that will bring happiness over time, regardless of the initial reaction they inspire.

3. Give people what they’ve asked for.
Surprises might feel more thoughtful than just handing the receiver what they asked for. But the research shows it’s better to just honor the initial requests.

4. Pick experiences over things.
Science has shown that people are happier with gifts of experiences than with material things.

I could bend this to apply to selecting colleges, but that might be a stretch.

Here’s what’s not a stretch: “I’ll go to the most prestigious college I get into, whichever one it is” violates all of them.

Your education is a gift, no matter where you go to college. But it’s worth considering the psychology before you choose which gift of admission to accept.

How to withdraw 529 plan money

Saving money in a 529 plan is just the first financially astute step. You’ve then got to withdraw it—at that right time—and use it for the right expenses for you to reap all of the intended benefits. And trusted source Consumer Reports lays out the steps in this article.