Passion follows you

I’ve written before that while colleges love evidence of passion in an application, that passion doesn’t need to be something a student is committing to for life. Cal Newport has blogged about this, too, and even wrote a book about it. And in this month’s Inc. Magazine, Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, explains why “Look for work you love” is actually terrible career advice.

Do things that you’re excited about today.  Work hard to get good at them. Keep doing them as long as they hold your interest. You won’t necessarily love everything about every involvement or job. But if you make it a habit of committing to things that excite you today, then diving in until you make an impact in some way, some of those activities—and eventually, jobs—start to stick. And that’s when the passion follows you.

College funding tidbits

A few college funding tidbits to send you into the weekend:

1. Good news on the college savings front, as the President dropped his proposal to tax new contributions to 529 plans.

2. For those families that were planning to increase your 529 contributions to beat the date on which new contributions would have been taxed had the proposal gone through, consider increasing the amounts anyway. Every dollar saved is a dollar you don’t have to borrow, and every dollar borrowed will cost roughly two dollars once you pay it back. Saving the money now gives you more control and lets compound interest work for you.

3. Mark Kantrowitz shares smart, regular tips on financial aid, scholarships, saving, and budgeting on his twitter feed.

4. And the Khan Academy has a decent walkthrough of the FAFSA here.

When “good enough” can be great

Seth Godin’s post, The Truth about Admissions, got our attention and generated some discussion here at Collegewise. We didn’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions (particularly about widening the pool of “good enough”), but he does sum up the reality of highly-selective admissions nicely:

“One in five applicants to Harvard and Stanford are completely qualified to attend—perhaps 20% of those that send in their applications have the smarts, guts and work ethic to thrive at these schools and to become respected alumni. These schools further filter this 20% by admitting only 5% of their applicants, or about one in four of those qualified. And they spend a huge amount of time sorting and ranking and evaluating to get to the final list. They do this even though there is zero correlation between the students they like the most and any measurable outcomes. The person they let in off the waiting list is just as likely to be a superstar in life as the one they chose first. Worth saying again: In admissions, just as in casting or most other forced selection processes, once you get past the selection of people who are good enough, there are few selectors who have a track record of super-sorting successfully.”

There are a lot of takeaways from Seth’s post.  Here are a few of the most important when discussing highly-selective college admissions:

1. There is no magic formula.
Admissions is not an exact science. There is no checklist of “what they look for” you can satisfy that will guarantee you an admission.

2. Don’t define your success by the outcome.
Deciding that you’ll only be happy if you go to Stanford is like saying that you’ll only be happy if you go to the prom with so–and–so. There’s nothing wrong with setting goals. But you can’t define your success—or your happiness—by an outcome you don’t ultimately control. Take your best shot. Then be happy with your effort.

3. The best you can be is good enough.
You can’t rise to the very top of the pool. You can’t have better grades or test scores or accomplishments than every other applicant. So the already great test-taker who sits for the SAT a fourth time in the hopes that she’ll eek out another 20 or 30 points, the recognized campus leader who joins one more club just to add it to his application, they’re not getting any closer to admission. They’re just polishing what’s already shiny—and good—enough.

4. Denials are not indictments.
A denial from a highly-selective college does not necessarily mean that you didn’t deserve an admission. It doesn’t mean the kid who got in is better than you. It doesn’t mean the college didn’t like your accomplishments or your essays or your letters of rec. And it doesn’t mean they didn’t like you. There are no precise instruments being used here. Refer back to takeaway #1 (and to Seth’s paragraph).

5. “Good enough” means you can be great.
If you were good enough to get close to admission at a highly-selective college, it means you have everything you need—smarts, work ethic, curiosity, character, etc.—to be great just about anyplace. Celebrate—and bring your future greatness to—another college that had the good sense to say yes to you.

Collegewise company meetup: Austin, TX

All 37 Collegewisers descended on Austin, Texas this week for our first annual company meetup. Our mantra for the meetup: “Keep Collegewise Weird,” our own version of the unofficial slogan of Austin signifying all that is proudly (and self-describably) hip, unique, and not like all the others.

While in Austin….

…we toured some colleges…

UT Austin

UT Austin


…we explored the city…





…we brainstormed our own personal statement essays with each other…

Allison (Irvine, CA) and Monica (Austin, TX)

Allison (Irvine, CA) and Monica (Austin, TX)

Kira (Bergen County, NJ) & Lauren (Bucks County, PA)

Kira (Bergen County, NJ) & Lauren (Bucks County, PA)

…we talked about how to get even better at what we do…


Arun presents, "How to earn referrals from Collegewise families"

Arun presents, “How to earn referrals from Collegewise families”

…we presented some awards…

Counselor of the Year Katie Konrad Moore (Bellevue WA) & Rookie of the Year Rebecca Putter (Austin, TX)

Counselor of the Year Katie Konrad Moore (left, of Bellevue, WA) & Rookie of the Year Rebecca Putter (right, of Austin, TX)

…we took a food truck tour…




…we had some laughs (we mean it when we tell students that the people reading your applications are not stuffy old fogeys)

Curt (New York, NY)

Former admissions officer, current Collegewise counselor, Curt (New York, NY)

…and most importantly, we all came home reminded how lucky we are to work with so many smart, funny, passionate, co-workers who’ve joined together to help change the way families experience the college admissions process.  I can’t wait to see what we accomplish before next year’s meetup.

Until then, we’ll continue making college admissions sane while keeping Collegewise weird.

A meeting is not a decision

How many of your meetings end with a decision to have another meeting?

“OK—let’s meet next week to discuss next steps.”

“We’ll see everyone again next Tuesday.”

“Add that to the next meeting’s agenda.”

An agreement to meet again isn’t real progress. It’s a progress substitute, a convenient way to avoid making a decision about what to do today. Without a decision, nobody needs to jump in and get to work. Why start today if you have to meet again to talk about what to do next? Repeat this a few times and you have a group who spends a lot of time meeting and not enough time actually getting things done.

Instead, make a decision today, something that you can send your attendees away to get started on. If you absolutely cannot make a decision today, spend the meeting identifying what information, funding, or permission you’d need to actually make the call. Then assign the appropriate people to get what you need before you bother meeting again.

The best reason to have a next meeting is to identify what to do next, not to talk more about something that could have been finished already.

Mix it up

One of the easiest and most effective ways to inject some energy into a group or organization is to surprise them by mixing it up.

Do you usually hold one-hour meetings with your members? Make the next meeting 15 minutes.

Do you have conference calls with your employees every Tuesday? Cancel them for a month and do ten-minute one-on-one calls with each person.

Do you serve bagels at staff meetings? Bring an electric skittle and have the boss cook pancakes next time.

Coaches, let your team captain run the practice next week.

Editors of school newspapers, give a full page to the cartoonist for one issue. Give it to someone else for the following issue.

Let the tuba player choose and arrange the marching band’s next song.

Make the next PTA meeting a potluck dinner hosted at one member’s house.

“We’ve always done it this way” doesn’t encourage looking for a better way. When routine has led to a rut, you don’t need monumental or expensive changes to inject some energy and creativity back into the group. Every now and then, just mix it up.

Behind the titles

What if the “Activities” section of college applications did not permit applicants to list the names or titles of the activities, but instead asked for a specific description of the impact students made within each commitment?

You couldn’t list “Varsity Golf, “ but you could describe that you organized trips to the driving range during the summer.

You couldn’t list “Part-time job at Layla’s Boutique,” but you could describe that you were the top salesperson for three months running which led to the store’s best performing quarter that year.

You couldn’t list “Volunteer at homeless shelter,” but you could describe that you’d successfully recruited five friends and that, between the six of you, you’d given nearly 1,000 hours of your time to the shelter.

The names and titles of activities have their place. But what really matters is what you get done.

The deadline isn’t the deadline

When any senior families will visit the financial aid sections of their respective colleges’ websites, many will note the deadline to file their FAFSA in order to apply for need-based aid. And while it is absolutely crucial to visit those sites so you know exactly how to apply (which often requires forms in addition to the FAFSA), please remember that the posted deadline isn’t the real deadline.

As financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz points out:

“Students who file the FAFSA in January, February or March receive more than twice as much grant funding, on average, as students who file the FAFSA later in the aid application cycle.”

Don’t take the initiative out

When a student shares with a Collegewise counselor that she volunteers at a hospital, works at a summer camp, or participates in any activity outside of school, we like to respond with some version of:

“Wow. That’s great. How did you get involved in that?”

The answer reveals a lot about the student’s initiative. We love it when a kid tells us that she called the hospital and asked if they were looking for volunteers. We love when we hear, “My friend told me about the camp, so I went online, filled out an application, and got called in for an interview.”

Kids with those answers tend to be a lot more engaged and enthusiastic about the activity than those who tell us that a parent found and secured it for them.

Colleges love to see initiative in an applicant. Mom and Dad (hopefully) will not be coming to college to find activities for their kid. But a student with initiative will bring it with her to campus. She’ll keep seeking out those opportunities. She’ll see the flyer on campus for an interesting club meeting and attend it. She’ll email, call, and knock on doors to find what she’s looking for.

For students are aren’t innate self-starters, initiative is a learnable skill. But students need the room—and maybe even a little encouragement—to learn it. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always resisted keeping encyclopedic binders in our offices of volunteer or internship opportunities to share with our students. Following a link on page 38 of a binder removes much of the initiating that student could have done.

Students, parents, and counselors, remember that the benefit from an activity isn’t limited to the awards, honors, or punchy title on a resume. Eventually those activities will be part of a student’s past. But initiative has staying-power. It’s fine to encourage and guide students who are looking for activities they will enjoy. But don’t take the initiative out.

Avoid the worst financial regret

The President is proposing a big change to 529 college savings plans—families could no longer withdraw the money tax-free (even if it’s used to pay for college expenses as the 529s are intended).

I’m not a financial advisor and it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to give broad recommendations on this blog about where families should or should not put their money.

So I’ll just share two reminders.

First, if enacted (which is not a slam dunk by any means), the proposed change would only apply to new contributions. Money already socked away in 529 plans could still be withdrawn tax-free.

Second, please don’t let fear or confusion about the right plan deter you from actually saving the money.

No matter where or how you do it, saving is the single best strategy to pay for college. The more money you have on hand, the less you’ll need to rely on financial aid and the more control you’ll have over your college financing.

I always advise that families focus their college planning efforts on those areas that you can control. You can’t ultimately control whether or not this change to 529 plans goes through. But you retain control over your commitment to saving.

Policy changes and other factors might later make you regret where and how you saved your college money. But you’ll avoid the worst financial regret—failing to save any money at all.