The spirit of the message

I occasionally come across an article where I agree with the spirit—but not the letter—of the advice, and that’s the case with “10 Messages That Matter More Than a Report Card.” I simply cannot imagine ever saying to a child or teenager, “Your flexibility and grit certainly helped you grow from this adversity.” But while the letter of the advice recommends particular phrasing, the spirit—which is spot on—is that our kids’ happiness and success, both now and in the future, is dependent on so much more than just the grade they get in geometry. And we should be focusing our messaging on what’s really important.

It doesn’t matter how you say it as long as you get the spirit of the message across.

Efficient fuel

Students, if you were to list your five most successful and fulfilling achievements—a good grade on a test, a raise at your part-time job, a learned skill in something that matters to you—what  would you learn from it? What behaviors led to the success? How can you apply those approaches to other areas of your life?

Successful people get that way in part because they learn from the inevitable failure that comes with repeatedly embracing challenges where they might not succeed. But they also know that success comes with its own valuable lessons.

This isn’t about pushing yourself to get better at everything all the time. It’s important to savor your successes and not to instinctively demand that you do even more all the time.

But the thrill that comes along with success is motivational fuel. And recycling the behaviors that lead to that success makes your fuel more efficient.


If you have a student, colleague, or friend who’s always late and leaves you waiting, here’s a technique that may change their behavior. The day before your next scheduled meeting together, just ask, “Will you be late tomorrow?”

Most people can’t bring themselves to answer yes to that question. But just considering the question at all makes them examine what they’re doing and consider what kind of behavior they want to model. Psychologists call this “self-persuasion,” and it’s surprisingly effective.

We’re more likely to persuade ourselves to change than we are to be persuaded.

Skipping out is missing out

I’ve noticed a lot more family awareness around the potential perils of taking on too much student debt to attend college. That caution is a good thing. But some families use that debt reluctance as an excuse to not apply for financial aid. That’s not good at all.

Filing a FAFSA to apply for need-based financial aid is not the same thing as applying for a loan, and it’s nowhere close to agreeing to take on debt. If you file the FAFSA and qualify for aid, the package you receive from each college might include some loans. But there are three important things to remember:

1. Each college will send you its own financial aid package.
2. That aid package can contain grants (free money that doesn’t need to be paid back) and work study programs in addition to loans.
3. You retain the right to accept pieces of the package and to decline others.

Submitting a FAFSA doesn’t mean you’re agreeing to take on debt. All you’re doing now is raising your hand and availing yourself of possible financial assistance to attend college, none of which will you later be obligated to accept without choice.

The choice about debt and how much—if any—to take on is different for every family. But the choice about whether to apply should be clear. You risk nothing other than time in filing your FAFSA. But you risk the loss of potential aid, including free money, if you don’t file.

The risk of skipping out is missing out.

Preparing to blog off into the sunset…

Yesterday, I completed my ninth year of consecutive daily blog posts here. And I’ve decided that this 10th year will be my last. I’ve still got 364 days of daily blogging left to go, so I won’t do a long preemptive goodbye today. But I did want to give readers the heads up that one year from today, the daily streak will come to an end.

Next to starting Collegewise, this blog is the most valuable endeavor I’ve ever taken on at work. Daily blogging has delivered more personal and professional benefit than I ever could have predicted when I wrote that first post nine years ago. In fact, I expect that I’ll keep blogging in some capacity even when this streak ends one year from now. But I’m ready to let go of the pressure to post every day. And more than ever before, I’m ready to write about topics other than college admissions.

Since I founded Collegewise in 1999, we’ve grown into the largest college counseling company in the world, with offices and families all over the globe. I love what we’ve become and the role that I’m currently playing—finding and recruiting the right people to join us, preserving the culture we’ve worked so hard to build, and making our company an even better place to work for everyone here. But I don’t work directly with families today. I don’t write our counseling materials. I don’t even do the majority of training for our new counselors. There are plenty of people in the college advising universe who know more about helping kids get into college today than I do, many of whom I’m proud to call colleagues here. I’ve always said that I’d keep blogging as long as I still had something to say. And on these topics for this audience, it feels like the right time for me to start winding down, and for other bloggers to start stepping up.

I’ll enjoy my final year penning daily posts and promise to do my best to keep writing something worth sharing. Thank you for reading, especially to those of you who’ve been readers for years. It’s a privilege to do this, one I’m looking forward to saying I appreciated every consecutive day for a decade.

Your starting product

If you’re stuck on your college essay before you even start, here’s a deceptively simple tip—just start. Set a timer for 10 minutes and don’t stop writing until the time is up.

If you can’t think of something good to write, start writing something bad.

That idea you’re considering but don’t know how to approach? Just start.

No idea where to start? How about your best day in high school? Your worst day? Your most challenging day?

Just start.

If someone asked you to talk about your high school experience, you wouldn’t get talker’s block. But writer’s block happens when you reject ideas preemptively. So much of what you put on paper in high school is eventually evaluated and graded, and it’s hard to remove that lens from the starting point. Remember that what you start writing is a world away from where you’ll finish.

The admissions committee will evaluate your finished product. But nobody but you will see, much less evaluate, what you write today. There’s no pressure on your starting product. So get momentum on your side and just start.

Add some *you* to your interview responses

Almost every strong answer in a college interview focuses on the same subject—you.

Don’t recite an accomplishment off the resume. Talk about how it made you feel.

Don’t list features and benefits to describe your interest in a college. Describe yourself and why you would thrive there.

Your favorite subject, your intended course of study, your hobbies or influences or challenges—every question is designed to learn more about you.

So give the interviewer what they’re looking for and add some you to every response.

Need help with supplemental essays?

Completing your Common Application essay doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done writing. Many colleges also require that you write supplemental essays on a specific topic, like explaining why you’ve decided to apply to this school, describing the activity that’s meant the most to you, or relating a time you failed or made a mistake and what you learned from the experience. If you’d like some advice, we’ve got two experts ready to help in an upcoming free webinar:

The Art of the Supplemental Essay
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT
No cost to attendees.

You’ll find information here about the webinar and how to register. Whether you’re still pondering, just starting, or finally polishing your supplemental essays, I hope you’ll join us.

When researchers debunk the rankings

Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, just released their white paper, A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity.” The three most substantial findings likely won’t surprise believers who read this blog:

  • Rankings are problematic because of flawed metrics and rampant misuse.
  • A college’s prestige does not predict student learning, job satisfaction, or happiness.
  • A student’s engagement in college is more predicative of the outcomes than the college itself.

Ideas like those presented in this paper spread best when shared with those most likely to embrace them. So while I didn’t conduct or publish this research, here’s who I believe the paper isn’t for:

1. People who just don’t care about college rankings.
If you’re in that group, you’ve already embraced what this paper is arguing. And it should come as no surprise that you have my full-throated support. Forge ahead, find the right colleges (famous or not) for your student, and know that the vast majority of counseling and admissions professionals endorse your approach.

2. People who believe that prestigious schools are the best schools.
For this group, college rankings—the most prominent of which always place prestigious schools at the top of the list—support your world view. The debate around college rankings isn’t an intellectual exercise you want or need to engage in. Unless you’re open to the idea that a less-famous school could very well provide the same or even better education and outcomes, a research study (even one published by a researcher at a top-ranked university, by the way) isn’t likely to change your mind.

Now, here’s who I believe this paper is for:

1. Families who want to make informed evaluations of potential colleges, but aren’t sure how to do it or what to focus on.
If you’re in this group, you don’t have strong preconceived college notions. You want to make good decisions, but given how many colleges and resulting data points there are to consider, you don’t know what to pay attention to and, more importantly, what to ignore. This paper will help you confidently ignore what’s become a driving and damaging force in college admissions. You’ll know you’re making a good decision doing so. And you’ll reinvest that energy into other areas that will help you better evaluate potential colleges.

2. Data-hungry college researchers.
I have an endearing term for you—“spreadsheet” families. You know who you are. You’re the family member for whom data drives decisions, so everything college-related goes on the spreadsheet. Good for you. You’re engaged in a college search and you want to use reliable metrics rather than marketing to drive those decisions. Members of this group sometimes fall prey to rankings when they mistake them as reliable data points. But the truly data hungry are willing to dig into what reveals itself to be a deeply flawed rankings methodology. This paper will arm you with published research so you can seek reliable data meant to do more than sell magazines.

So if you’re open to looking beyond rankings and prestige, the research, the data, and the encouragement can all be found in here.

Parents and college essays: be afraid

Fear almost never belongs in the college admissions process. Collegewise counselors work hard to remove it. We commit to never injecting it. We want to help families embrace the journey to college as an exciting time where fear has no place.

But there is one instance where I intentionally instill fear because it’s both legitimate and necessary—when parents over-involve themselves in their student’s college essays.

What does “over-involvement” look like? Insisting (over the student’s objections) that they write what you want them to write. Rewriting portions in the way you think they should be written. Flat out writing the essay for your student. They’re all different versions of the same behavior—taking away the thoughts, words, and ensuing stories of a 17-year-old and replacing them with your own.

So, why should you be afraid to do it? Because when you over-involve yourself, admissions officers know it.

Admissions officers have read enough essays to know how students (and unfortunately, how over-involved parents) think and write. That sixth essay sense comes with experience. If you put 20 essays in front of me and asked me to pick out the one that was the product of an over-involved parent, I’ll bat 1000 on that exercise, every time. And I’ve read a fraction of the essays most admissions officers read.

Once the reader recognizes that an essay is not entirely the student’s, it triggers a cascade of negative application effects.

Now the reader is forced to question the integrity of the rest of the application. How much did Mom or Dad do? How much of what’s presented is unvarnished truth from a teen, and how much is over-polished (at best) or fiction (at worst) from the parent?

How often does this behavior repeat itself in the student’s academic work?

Will this parent take over the work once the student is admitted to college (no college professor wants to teach a student whose parents do some or all the work for them)?

Some parents might cry foul and claim this treatment isn’t fair. But the question of fairness isn’t the issue. It’s reality, and an entirely avoidable one.

And consider the effect this over-involvement has on your student. When you take over their essay, you’re telling them their stories aren’t good enough, that their writing isn’t good enough, and that they aren’t good enough. You’re telling them that they can’t get into college without you doing the work for them. And worst of all, you’re telling them that it’s OK to misrepresent themselves in the hopes that the end will justify the means.

Parents can absolutely suggest stories and approaches. You can correct grammar and spelling if you have that skill set. And you certainly know your student well enough to share feedback around questions like these.

But there’s just no nice way to say this. Parents, if you think your essay over-involvement is the exception, if you think you’re improving their essay and improving their chances of admission, you are kidding yourself. You’re making the essay worse. You’re making your student’s chances of admission worse. I know your intentions are good, but you’re making things worse.

If this sounds surprisingly critical or alarmist, that’s intentional. These risks are real. And if parents are going to take them, you deserve to know what you’re risking.

So if you’re afraid, listen to those fears. Step back and let your student get back to writing their own essays.

And if you’re looking for another voice to add to this chorus, please see this recent NY Times piece, “How I Know you Wrote your Kid’s College Essay.”