Dot connecting

In 2005, Steve Jobs delivered what would become an iconic commencement address to Stanford graduates. One of the messages that resonated most with me was that when you eventually end up where you’re meant to go in life, the path you took to get there will make sense in retrospect, but it might not make sense while it’s happening in real time. As he put it,

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Jason Fried of Basecamp writes a similar story that looks back to connect the dots from where he is today—the founder and CEO of a multi-million-dollar software company who has been asked to pen an opinion piece for the New York Times—to when he was a teenager who decided to make a simple computer program to keep track of his music CD collection.

Students and parents, as you read this story, ask yourself, “Would Fried be where he is today if someone back in high school had told him that colleges wouldn’t care about his hobby?”  (They would have been wrong, by the way, even without the future dot-connecting to prove it).

College planning has its place. But don’t make every high school decision based on its predicted impact on your college admissions chances. Instead of always looking forward, trust that your hard work and character will eventually leave you with connected dots to look back on.

A Thanksgiving reminder

Thanksgiving done right means that we spend time with our families and remind ourselves how much we have to be grateful for.  It’s a celebration of what really matters. And it can also be our invitation to let go of those things that don’t matter.

Of course, your future and your education matter. I would never advise that any student be blasé about those things.

But one grade, one standardized test score, one decision from a college—those things might feel enormously important, but they don’t carry an ounce of long-term impact on health, happiness, family, friends, or opportunity. In the grand scheme of things, they just don’t matter. Working hard, staying engaged, and being good to both yourself and others—they matter far more in both the short and long term.

Use today as an opportunity to forget about all the extraneous details that ultimately don’t matter. And redirect your focus on those things that do.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


First ask, “Why?”

Counselors, how do you handle it when students make their process—and your job—more difficult than it needs to be?

It might be a student who consistently missed appointments, or never remembers to email essays for you to review, or who refuses to completely engage in the process even though deadlines are approaching?

The Gallup Organization’s groundbreaking book on management, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, shares the following example of how great managers handle similar situations with employees.

A talented employee repeatedly shows up late for work. What would you do? Would you fire him? Give a verbal and or written warning? Lock the door and refuse to let him in if he’s late?

The best managers—and this is based on 80,000 manager interviews—all gave a similar reply that summed up their attitude about the relationships they strived to cultivate with each employee.

“I would ask why.”

An employee could be repeatedly late for a number of reasons, ranging from job dissatisfaction, to a change in bus schedules, to a problem at home. The second step for great managers might then be to take any number of different actions to address the problem. But the first step is always to ask why.

Like employees, your students won’t always have a legitimate or acceptable excuse. But you won’t know until you ask why.

Right the first time

The first student who ever enrolled at Collegewise (way back in 1999) went from a C average in high school to an A average at the University of Arizona. Much of that turnaround had to do with the opportunity to study what interested him and his conscious decision to simply apply himself. But he also discovered a secret academic weapon by regularly visiting professors during their scheduled office hours. Many of those faculty members mentioned that he was the only student who ever visited during those times. And as he put it, “When you just talk to professors about the material, they’ll tell you what’s going to be on the test!” By the time he graduated, he had close relationships with over a dozen of his former professors, many of whom advised him on his next step and even served as references.

He, and thousands of Collegewise students since then, have only reinforced what all of our counselors believe:

1. Great educations take place at lots of colleges, not just the prestigious ones.

2. No matter what benefits a college may tout, it will be up to you to make the most of the experience while you’re there.

3. What you do while you’re in college will ultimately be more important than where you do it.

4. You’re more likely to thrive when you attend a college that fits.

5. The right college can help just about any student learn, have fun, discover talents, and reach their potential.

Thanks, Nick, for being the first Collegewise kid, and for setting a great example for the nearly 8,000 who’ve joined us since.

Don’t fear blank space

We’re one of those lucky companies that gets more than a hundred applications for a single open position when we’re hiring. And almost without exception, those who send 2- or 3-page resumes, or who include additional materials that we did not request, are not among the strongest candidates that we’re likely to interview.

It’s not that we’re trying to punish them.  But the strongest applicants lead with their strongest information.  They use brevity to their advantage so that it’s easy for us to see why they stand out.

Whether you’re applying for a job or applying to college, when you overwhelm those on the reading end with more information than a single person can process, you run the risk that your most noteworthy, impressive accomplishments will 1) shine less brightly, or 2) be missed entirely.

Long lists, multiple pages of text, extra materials—the more a reviewer has to process literally and mentally, the harder it is to discern what makes an applicant stand out.

Of course, if a college or an employer requests or requires more information or additional materials, send it along. The first rule is to follow the directions.

Otherwise, share your proudest accomplishments proudly and clearly. Use the space available to help a reader understand the magnitude or context. And if you run out of space, take that as a sign that you’ve reached the potential attention limit of those who will review your application. In fact, be as discerning as you can about what merits inclusion. If you can clearly explain what needs to be explained in less space than is provided, you might consider quitting while you’re ahead. Don’t fear blank space.

What really matters

From Michael K. Mulligan, Head of The Thacher School in California, in his column, Advice on hat Really Matters in the College Process:

“America’s colleges and universities are the best in the world. Going to a big name might open doors for you initially, but it is all up to you in the long run. You are better off focusing on being the best person you can be, going to the best college for you that you can get into regardless of its rank, and showing by example that you are trustworthy, dependable, and hardworking. Doors will open for you and good things will happen. Your success in life is about who you are, not where you go to college.”

Using today’s tools

Few things are more rewarding for a college counselor than seeing a former student go off and do great things during and after college. In his life before Collegewise, Tom Barry of our Bellevue, Washington office worked for the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. One of his former students, Ammar, is responsible for this YouTube video, which he emailed to Tom this week. As I write this, it has already surpassed 100,000 views.

Beyond the touching sentiment, it’s a good reminder of the platform today’s youth have. I cannot imagine a scenario when I was in high school or college where I could have potentially reached hundreds of thousands of people as quickly and effectively as this group of students did with a camera, some time spent on a subway platform, and the power of today’s tools to share and spread it.

No hooks necessary

I’ve fallen for them, and I’m sure many of you have, too. Those dopey “articles” online whose headlines I just can’t resist:

You’ll never believe what happened next!
Top Ten_______. Number 6 will blow your mind!
Best sports photos ever captured.

Those headlines are just hooks—false drama acting as a bait to lure otherwise uninterested readers. And not surprisingly, the articles themselves almost never live up to the hook hype.

College applicants may have heard that your essay needs a hook, something to grab the reader’s attention. That’s why so many essays include sentences like “As we hurtled toward the icy rapids, our paddles frantically churning in unison…” or, “In that moment, I realized that teamwork and friendship were far more important than winning.”

But you’re not writing click-bait here.

If an experience was dramatic, by all means, relay the drama. But if you’re injecting drama after the fact, you run the risk of moving away from good story-telling into something more akin to the online headline baits.

Yes, your college essay needs to be interesting—no reader will want to slog through six hundred words about why you love popcorn. And I love a pithy opening as much as any reader (one of my all-time favorite essays from a Collegewise student began, “I am a good loser. It is an art that I’ve perfected). Good writing means good story-telling, after all.

But the most important of the many differences between a college essay and the online click-bait is that you are not writing for an otherwise uninterested audience. You’re writing for willing readers who are invested in learning about you. You have their attention. You don’t need to pique their interest. You just need to satisfy it. And that’s a no-hook-necessary goal.

Good enough is good enough

For many seniors, the completion of college applications, especially those for the schools a student most wants to attend, can be divided into two phases:

1. The completion, where an application is technically complete.
2. The polishing, where a student seeks additional feedback and continues to make what are often subtle revisions in the name of completing a perfect application.

Both phases are important, but don’t let your polishing phase get out of hand.

I would never suggest that a student submit an application as soon as it is complete. Revising your application with a critical eye, often with the aid of additional feedback, is your opportunity to make improvements that can make a good application a great application.

But some students hold on to their applications until the very last minute, hoping that just a few more days of revisions can push them into the admit pile. And the rule of diminishing returns applies here. The longer you hold on to a completed application, the more angst you’ll generate, and the less valuable your revisions are likely to become.

Here are a few ways to identify if you’ve hit the revision wall:

1. Have the people you trust the most given you the “OK” to submit?
If so, resist the urge to seek additional feedback from other sources. If you ask 10 people for advice about how to improve your application, you’re likely to get up to 10 different opinions. Stick with your closest and most trusted advisors, whether they’re personal or professional. And once you’ve considered and potentially integrated their feedback, hit the “Submit” button and don’t look back.

2. Are you running out of revisions?
There comes a point with every project where your desire to improve it is greater than the number of available ideas to achieve that goal. If you find yourself staring at an application and the essays over a couple days without seeing any obvious points for improvement, that’s your brain’s way of telling you that you’ve done your best and that it’s time to send it off to the college.

I know it’s tempting to wait until you love every word, every construction of phrasing, every description and sentence and strategy you’ve brought together on an application to a college you really want to attend. But some students are more wired to experience that mental relief than others, and frankly, I’ve never seen a student reach that level of application pleasure simply by withholding the application, seeking ever more feedback, and over-polishing every section.

Yes, your college applications deserve your time and attention. And one of the most important reasons to start your applications long before the deadlines is to give yourself some breathing room to revisit and revise your first draft.

But at some point, you’ve taken in enough feedback, done enough drafts, and revised your application to a place where it’s as good as it is going to be. When that happens—and your trusted advisors agree—there’s no sense in prolonging your application anxiety. Be confident in yourself and the work that you’ve done. Then submit your application and enjoy the wave of relief to follow shortly thereafter. Perfection is a nice concept, but the most successful applicants trust themselves to know when good enough is good enough.