If the application had one prompt

Students, imagine for a moment your college applications consisted of only one prompt:

Submit letters of recommendation, as many as you’d like, from people who can tell us how you helped, supported, encouraged, or otherwise positively impacted them and their lives during your high school years. Bear in mind that when we read these letters, specific examples tend to resonate more than vague generalities do.

If you could put together a strong application with just that one prompt, you’d have a lot to show for how you spent your time in high school (and how others were impacted by it). And you’d likely have plenty of compelling examples to share on any college’s application.

Tap into your team’s potential

I recently shared an experiment we were launching at Collegewise, the Talent Tour of Duty, an 8-week program for our colleagues to help our Talent Department find new and better ways to find, recruit, hire, train, and engage the very best employees. We’d originally envisioned 8-10 people participating, a number we picked largely based on how many people might be interested (and even that was a guess). But we were astonished at both the quality and the quantity of the applications, so much so that we accepted 18 Collegewise employees into the program.

To be clear, none of these people actually work in our Talent Department. They hail from nearly every department in our company, from counseling to sales to finance to filmmaking. And they all have full-time jobs with full-time responsibilities. But they’ve all experienced what it’s like to be recruited and hired here. They’ve been through their own trainings. They’ve experienced their own joys and challenges as they’ve progressed through their jobs here. Who better to spot how we can improve the employee experience than the employees themselves?

Leaders often make the mistake of reserving the right to initiate change. But that puts enormous pressure on the leader and devalues the potential of the team. Great ideas are equal opportunity employers. Why limit the time spent observing, analyzing, and problem solving to a select few individuals? When you engage others to spot opportunities, to find solutions, and to innovate, you increase your collective potential for impact exponentially.

We’re so grateful to the Wisers who raised their hands for the Talent Department, and we can’t wait to see not only the ideas they present, but also the projects they ship. I’ll share our progress, and some of our projects, as we go. I hope our Talent Tour of Duty inspires others to tap into their own team’s potential.

Congratulations to our Talent Tour of Duty participants: Abby van Geldern, Frank Martinez, Jackie Muralla, Jen Turano, Jordan Kanarek, Katie Konrad Moore, Katie Sprague, Kellie Graham, Laura Dicas, Liz Pack, Lindsay O’Sullivan, Megan Carlier, Michael Banks, Nan Yuasa, Nicole Pilar, Nikayla Loy, Olivia Vail, and Tom Barry.

The human on each side

A friend of mine is searching for jobs right now, which can be a demoralizing experience made worse by events like the one he described to me this week. A recruiter scheduled an online interview for my friend with the manager making the hire. But the manager neither accepted nor declined the scheduling request. So the recruiter’s recommended solution was to show up online anyway just in case the manager arrived.

What message does that send to an applicant? How does that make someone more likely to accept a future job with the company, which is ostensibly the purpose of good recruiting? And most importantly, how would that recruiter—and the manager—feel if the same thing happened to their significant other, son or daughter, or best friend?

My guess is that they would not be so casual about devaluing someone’s time if they knew the someone whose time was being devalued.

The college or job application, the online chat with tech support, the phone call to customer service–there’s always a human being on each side of those exchanges. The more they treat each other like the humans they are, the better the experience, and likely the outcome, will be.

When to ditch the strategy

For college applicants awaiting decisions (and their parents waiting in the respective wings), here are some behaviors that will result in admission guarantees:

  • Worrying (or talking excessively) about the impending outcome
  • Attempting to predict the result
  • Second-guessing your essays or application approaches
  • Reinforcing in your mind that only one school will make you happy
  • Comparing your accomplishments to those of other applicants in an attempt to gauge your chances

Each action is guaranteed to have absolutely no impact on the outcome itself. And they’ll almost certainly inject more anxiety into your wait.

If a strategy is guaranteed not to work, ditch the strategy.

Team success is your success

In the last decade, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team has made ten straight Final Four appearances and taken home six titles (including an NCAA unprecedented four in a row). But head coach Geno Auriemma doesn’t look for or reward individual superstars. He evaluates the players based on their contributions to the team. No matter how great a player may be, if their play proves they’re out for themselves at the expense of the team, they won’t get in the game. In fact, Geno expects players to contribute even while on the bench. As he relayed in this interview:

“I’d rather lose than watch kids play the way some kids play…They’re always thinking about themselves. Me, me, me, me. I didn’t score, so why should I be happy? I’m not getting enough minutes, why should I be happy? So when I watch game film, I’m checking what’s going on on the bench. If somebody is asleep over there, if somebody doesn’t care, if somebody’s not engaged in the game, they will never get in the game. Ever.”

There’s a growing body of research proving that those who reach the highest levels of success, from athletics to business to science, are those who make contributions to their respective teams, who care more about the goals of the group than they do their own individual aspirations. The more people you help reach their goals, the more likely you are to achieve yours.

Best of all, this isn’t a strategy reserved for superstars. You can employ it no matter what team you’re on, athletic or otherwise.

Don’t skip “How can I help?”

Counselors and parents, if a student presents you with a challenge or a situation they’re facing where they don’t know what to do, it’s tempting to jump in and offer solutions.

“I want to take AP Chem and orchestra, but they’re offered in the same period.”

“My parents want me to apply to their alma mater, but I don’t want to go there.”

“I didn’t make the volleyball team and there are no other activities that interest me.”

You (think) you know the answer. You’re ready to dish out the advice it seems they desperately need. But before you solve their problem, take a minute to understand what they think the problem is. Ask questions. Get more detail. Gently get to the heart of what they’re thinking, feeling, and facing.

And once you’ve got a clear sense of that, then ask, “How can I help?”

Now, here’s the key. You don’t necessarily need to agree to whatever they request. If your student says, “I want you to call the counselor and demand that they rearrange the school schedule so I can take both classes this semester,” that’s likely not a request you’ll want to honor.

But there’s a subtle art behind this question: it makes the asker take ownership. They need to think through the issue, assess where they need help, and then ask (or not ask) for it.

You’re not jumping in uninvited. You’re not preemptively solving a problem you weren’t asked to solve. You’re not removing the opportunity for them to learn, to spot their own solutions, or to assess what kind of help they need or don’t need.

You’re just asking, “How can I help?”

The question is important. Don’t skip it.

On praising by comparison

Too often in high school, the praise that kids receive is rooted in comparison.

“You scored in the 97% percentile.”

“You had the most points on the team.”

“Your solo was the best one.”

Comparison isn’t inherently bad, especially when it’s the standard of judging a performance. If you’re on the swim team, your performance in a meet is based on how fast you swim compared to other swimmers.

But even when the comparison is the basis, the praise at home doesn’t need to be that way.

“I know you studied really hard for that test.”

“I’m so happy that you’re really enjoying playing on the team this year.”

“I was so proud. You didn’t seem nervous at all during your solo!”

Naysayers may claim that we need to get kids prepared for the cold, hard, real world where winners get ahead. But that’s not rooted in fact for most industries–or in life. Most successful people have a string of failures on their unspoken resume entirely because they were willing to take on uncertain challenges. And your personal life is rarely rooted in competition (there’s a reason most wedding vows don’t include a promise to be a winner).

Parents, the next time you want to express your pride to your student, look for a way that doesn’t rely on a comparison to others. Home should always be a place that cares more about who you are and less about where you placed.

A token apology with the right token

Regular readers know that I’m a fan—and a customer—of the company Basecamp. In November, their software went down for the longest period of downtime in company history. And in this episode of their podcast (you can access other ways to listen at the podcast’s main site), their CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson, details how they responded, communicated with, and ultimately apologized to their customers.

Hansson points out that when you let a customer down, you have two tokens available to you: 1) This is a huge deal, and 2) This isn’t that big of a deal. When you grab the first token, the odds increase substantially that the customer will grab the second token.

Basecamp has hundreds of thousands of paying customers. When the software was down for an entire day, only one customer expressed outright anger (turns out they were in fact deeply affected). And many others wrote in expressing their support, understanding, and devotion to the product.

You don’t have to be in business to use this approach. The next time you let someone down, take the right token and see what happens.

Negotiating a better financial aid package

Many families have heard that the financial aid package they receive from a college may not, in fact, be the school’s final offer–that they can appeal to the financial aid office for a more favorable package. But what’s a lot less clear is exactly how a family should go about making that appeal. What factors are considered? How do you make an effective case? What can you do to improve your chances of getting the package you need to attend the college you want?

Industry-recognized expert Mark Kantrowitz just released a new book, How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid: The Secrets to Negotiating a Better Financial Aid Offer…and Getting More Financial Aid in the First Place! I’ve not yet read the book, but if it’s anything at all like the hundreds of articles, interviews, and other informational resources Kantrowitz has participated in on the topic of college financing, you can expect that it will be full of expert, unbiased advice with no selfish angle other than to help families.

The description of the book makes it clear that it’s not a lesson in negotiation for families who have already received a generous package. The most successful appeals almost always come from a clear, compelling presentation that financial circumstances within the family necessitate more aid for the student to attend that college. And this book promises to help families in that situation make the most compelling case.

If you’d like a quick primer on this topic and Kantrowitz’s approach, here’s a 2015 Washington Post article, “How to Negotiate a better financial aid package.


Open the door, or close it?

In the last 10 days, we’ve received over 300 applications for open positions we’re currently recruiting for at Collegewise. With that many applications, we have to turn away a lot more people than we can hire or even interview. And we think applicants who show an interest in us deserve to be treated with respect, especially if they really take the time to put together a thoughtful cover letter to help us get to know them. Applying for jobs can be a demoralizing experience for even the most intrepid job-seeker, and it’s important to remember that there’s always a person behind the paper.

Still, it’s interesting to see how some people respond to an email telling them we will not be offering them a position. Many reply and thank us for the update, citing how many jobs they’ve applied for and never heard anything back. Some express their disappointment and understanding, along with a sincere desire to be considered again if the right opportunity were to arise. And some tell us what a mistake we’re making. One applicant last spring responded to a personal email explaining why he wasn’t selected with only, “Whatever man. Your loss.”

When someone responds like that, what are they hoping will happen?

I’m not suggesting they’re a bad person or even that they’re wrong. Maybe we are making a mistake. Maybe we should have offered them a position. Hiring is an imperfect science and even the best process can’t guarantee you’ll get every decision right.

But a reply like that shuts the door. The conversation is over. What reason do we have to come back to them in the future, or to pass along a referral for another opportunity, or reach out and reconnect at a conference? We’re not holding grudges, we’re just taking the signal that this person is done with us. If that’s the intention of the reply, message received.

There’s no right or wrong here, and I don’t expect anyone to pat us on the back after we say no. But everyone deserves to find a job where they can be happy and successful, and it’s important to be intentional about which doors you close, and which you leave open.

Private counselors, how do you respond when a family chooses a competitor over you?

Students, how do you respond when you aren’t selected for a team, class or leadership position?

Colleges, what do you say to the student who informs you they’ve accepted another school’s offer of admission?

Your response to a no has an effect, one that can either close the door or keep it open. Before you respond to a no, decide what you’d like to happen with the door.