How to maximize the relief of a completed task

When you have an unpleasant task to complete, the timeline is actually broken up into three parts:

1. Time spent worrying about it
2. Time spent doing it
3. Time spent relieved that it’s behind you and moving on to more enjoyable things

Procrastinators allocate their time like this:

TaskTimeline

But if you start now and focus hard until it’s finished, your timeline looks closer to this:

RevisedTaskTimeline

Procrastinating doesn’t just put off the project. It prolongs the anxiety. And it delays the gratification of having it done. Start now and focus hard until you’re done. For longer projects, focus hard until you make substantial progress. Then take a break, refresh and repeat. You’ll still have a timeline that minimizes worry, lessens work, and maximizes relief.

The fare at the college fair

Our Collegewise business partner, Arun, who worked in admissions at Caltech and the University of Chicago, once described to me that a college fair is like a buffet. It’s a great place to go find a lot of choices to survey, but not great if you’re looking for a specific dish cooked just how you like it.

What he meant was that you’ll inevitably find dozens, sometimes hundreds, of colleges in attendance. You can easily have conversations with reps, learn more about schools that interest you, and get general questions answered about majors, basic admissions requirements, housing, etc.

But many students show up to college fairs and ask very specific questions, like:

Are my SAT scores high enough?

How many community service hours would you recommend I do?

Can I do study abroad if I’m double majoring in business and Spanish?

It’s not that they’re all bad questions (though colleges do cringe when students ask the “How much community service is enough?” question). But the people staffing those tables range from admissions officers to enthusiastic alumni whose only training is an enthusiastic, “Go get ‘em.” Without an actual application in hand, even admission officers have a hard time answering questions about your potential admissibility. And whether the person you’re talking to actually knows the answer to your very specific questions about the school or the programs really depends on the luck of the draw. Maybe you’re talking to an alumnus who actually has experience with what you’re asking about, or maybe you’re dealing with someone who really has no idea whether or not the pre-med advising office is open on Sunday mornings.

The moral of the story (and of the buffet analogy) is that while you should certainly ask any questions you have, please don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the answers you’re looking for. Think of the fair as a way to survey broad options, buffet-style, and get a sense of what’s available to you. File away the answers that you are able to get. And understand that to get your more specific questions answered, you’re probably better served by calling the school, attending a presentation, or even visiting the campus.

Here’s a current schedule of fairs and some past Collegewise advice.

Welcome our CFO, Joel Block, to Collegewise

Last week, I shared a great contribution from our new CFO. This week, I finally get to introduce him. Joel Block has joined Paul, Arun, and me as a partner and the first official Chief Financial Officer at Collegewise.

At first glance, Joel might look like your typical CFO. He studied business at the University of Michigan with a concentration in finance and accounting while minoring in stats. He worked in New York City on a trading floor and then in the fixed income area trading corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities while focusing on interest rate derivatives (his new partners didn’t understand a single syllable of that, by the way). He cannot recognize a Beatles song and has almost no knowledge of pop culture.

But there’s more to Joel than the stereotypical, manically numbers-focused CFO.

He also worked in sales, pitching to CFO’s and treasurers. He was named Basketball Coach of the Year for his younger brother’s competitive summer league team. He can tell you where every NBA player and most NFL players went to college, and he knows the vast majority of college mascots.

Best of all, his last name was familiar to everyone at Collegewise, as Joel was smart and lucky enough to marry his Michigan Wolverine college sweetheart, Chelsea Block of our Irvine, California office. Joel was one of us before he ever officially joined up.

Collegewise has never been about the money for us. We’re all here because we believe in our mission, and we love what we’re doing. But even the most mission-driven businesses need to be financially sound to succeed. Paul, Arun, and I knew that Collegewise was too important to rely on our limited skills in that area. In Joel, we found someone who knows how to run the business side of our business. From payroll, to insurance, to budgeting and expense reporting, Joel will help us make sure that we run a smart, safe, and financially sane business.

More importantly, Joel has seen first-hand the difference we make with kids. He believes in Collegewise and what we’re trying to do, so much so that after looking at our business plan and talking with us, Joel put in his own money to join us not as an employee, but as a partner. We’re so happy to have him here that even Ohio-native and fervent Buckeye fan, Arun, has welcomed this Michigan Wolverine into the family. It’s a great match.

Joel, welcome to Collegewise! We’re glad to have another Wolverine, and another Block, on board.

Help kids develop long-term traits

I’ve often reminded parents here to praise effort, not outcomes. I like the message that the grade your student gets on the geometry final is less important than how hard the kid worked in pursuit of success. Once a student gets in the habit of fearlessly taking on challenges and working hard in pursuit of their goals, the outcomes will naturally follow.

But the bigger message here is to praise traits that have staying power. An “A” on the geometry midterm isn’t going to carry much weight in the real world after college. But a willingness to exert effort in pursuit of a personally meaningful goal—that’s a trait that will pay back dividends forever.

A few other traits that carry over during and after college:

Enthusiasm
Curiosity
Resilience
Emotional intelligence
Passion
Character

For many families, the pressure around the college admissions process reduces success or failure to measures like grades, test scores, and admissions decisions. And I don’t deny that those measures have significance in high school for college-bound kids.

But at some point, high school will be left behind. And those kids who’ve developed long-term traits will be well-prepared for what comes next.

Collegewise is hiring in Roslyn, New York

We’re looking for our next director of college counseling to join our merry band here at Collegewise, with a position open in Roslyn, New York. If you believe that the prestigious schools don’t have the market cornered on great experiences, if you believe the college admissions process can and should be enjoyable, if you believe that the anxiety surrounding college admissions can be remedied with regular doses of sanity and perspective, we’d love to hear from you. All the details are here.

Minimizing mistakes

I often remind families that the college admissions process shouldn’t be treated like an anxious life-and-death struggle; it’s an exciting time to be enjoyed. But one element that does add pressure is the permanence of many common mistakes.  If you make a bad color choice when painting a room in your house, you can always re-paint. But if you forget to take required standardized tests, miss an application deadline, or neglect to take a required class—there’s not much you can do to fix those missteps. And those missteps will likely affect your college options.

Here’s a list of the most common financial aid mistakes, courtesy of Mark Kantrowitz, and just about all of them are easy to avoid once you’ve been warned. And here’s a past post of mine to minimize mistakes in college planning.

Answer questions preemptively

A “frequently-asked questions” section on a website is a great idea in theory. In practice, it often falls short for two reasons:

1. The user has to seek it out.
2. All too often, the question you want answered isn’t there.

Now that we’ve bought Collegewise back from The Princeton Review, we had to switch our benefits provider. That meant that every employee had to fill out a new enrollment form for medical, dental, and vision benefits. Not surprisingly, the forms were confusing (I’ve never filled out a simple insurance form). We all had questions, the type that we’d typically have to answer ourselves by searching online or by reaching out to a benefits provider and waiting for a response.

But that never happened. Our CFO (who put the plans together) did something smart, simple and incredibly helpful—he filled out a sample form by hand and included it with the forms we had to complete. In that sample, he underlined the portions we needed to fill out and crossed out those we could ignore. And he included annotations with helpful tips like:

“Skip to page 3”
“Only applicable if you’re declining coverage.”
“Enter the code here” (with a list of the codes to pick from)

It wasn’t elegant or even complex. But it was so helpful and refreshing. It probably took him less than five minutes to do, but that five minutes saved our 37 Collegewisers hours of cumulative time and frustration. And it saved him from likely receiving a few dozen emails asking, “What are the codes for the plans?”

Teachers, counselors, PTA presidents, business owners, student leaders, and anyone who has a constituency that you serve—what are the most frequently-asked questions in your organization? Can you answer them preemptively, either in person, or with a handout, or by sending a link to an appropriate, helpful FAQ?

Remember, a lengthy handbook or a single repository with hundreds of supposed “FAQs” isn’t as helpful as a focused, timely, relevant resource. Sure, you can keep everything in one spot, too. But it’s much more helpful when you share the desirable information as those events or milestones happen and people are likely to need particular answers.

Before you say that you don’t have time, consider how much time you might get back in the future. Our CFO has already saved himself hours that would have been spent answering questions because of one form. And he can use that same resource over and over as we add people in the future.

Spend the time it takes to give really thoughtful, helpful answers once. Record or save or otherwise find a way to keep them on hand. Then share the answers with people when you anticipate the questions arriving. You’ll save hours of time and give better support to your people when you answer questions preemptively.

Interpreting financial aid award letters

Interpreting a college’s financial aid award letter can be tricky business. A letter that says, “Congratulations! You’ve been awarded $15,000 in financial aid” isn’t necessarily telling you that you’re getting a $15,000 discount off the sticker price. Not all financial aid is free money—financial aid can also include loans (which need to be paid back) or work-study for the student. So a family who smartly wants to compare the costs of the colleges that accepted their student must first decode the award letter.

If you have a financial aid award letter in hand, here’s how to answer the question of how much that college will actually cost for your student to attend next year.

1. Calculate the total amount of grants and scholarships in the financial aid award.
Grants and scholarships are free money that doesn’t need to be paid back. The bigger this number, the better.

2. Find the college’s total “cost of attendance.”
The cost of attendance is the sticker price. It’s the estimated cost of attending one year at this particular college, including tuition, room and board, and estimated travel expenses. If you do not see the actual words “cost of attendance” or the acronym “COA” on the letter, it means the college has neglected to include it (this is inexcusably common, by the way). Go to the financial aid section of the college’s website to find it. Or call the financial aid office and ask.

Now, subtract the amount of grants/scholarships from the total cost of attendance. That’s the net price. It’s what you’ll need to pay out of pocket to attend that school next year.

Beware: “Net cost,” which includes loans in its calculations, is not the same thing as “Net price.”

I’m not a numbers guy (as evidenced by the fact that I majored in English and history in college). So the excellent, and far more detailed, advice on this topic that Mark Kantrowitz shares here made my head spin. But if I were trying to interpret a financial aid award letter, I’d acknowledge how important it is that I get this right. And I’d follow Kantrowitz’s instructions to the (financial aid award) letter.

Bring a little extra, too

Imagine a restaurateur saying to a server, “I won’t open my new place unless you join my staff.”

How good would that server need to be to earn that invite?

Yes, he would need to be good at his job. But it’s unlikely he could be so accurate, fast, and polite that an owner couldn’t imagine being in business without him.

What if he made it his mission to learn the names of his regular customers? What if he remembered their favorite dishes and their anniversaries and their kids’ names without being reminded? What if he made people more comfortable and feel more welcome than they felt at any other restaurant in town? He’d be indispensable, not because his serving skills were that much better, but because of the “extra,” the stuff he does that’s not part of his job. He’d be doing things that other servers in town don’t do.

What if you approached your activities like this server approached his job? Yes, give your best effort to the required parts of the job—working hard at practice, laying out the yearbook, learning your lines, etc. But if you really want to stand out, bring a little extra, too.