The pre-judgment problem

Seth Godin’s recent post, “Our pre-judgment problem,” shares several examples of how people and organizations use the wrong metrics to judge people, including:

The SAT is a poor indicator of college performance, but most colleges use it anyway.

Famous colleges aren’t correlated with lifetime success or happiness, but we push our kids to seek them out.

The good news?

1. According to FairTest, “a record 900 accredited, bachelor-degree institutions say they will make decisions about all or many applicants without considering ACT or SAT test scores.”

2. Families can decide for themselves whether or not to push kids to seek out famous colleges.

The formula for high-quality work in less time

Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, just posted on their website an excerpt from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by study skills author Cal Newport. The formula referenced below is what Newport describes as the secret to getting great work done in less time:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

“It [the formula] first came to my attention when I was researching my second book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, many years earlier. During that research process, I interviewed around 50 ultra-high-scoring college undergraduates from some of the country’s most competitive schools. Something I noticed in these interviews is that the very best students often studied less than the group of students right below them on the GPA rankings. One of the explanations for this phenomenon turned out to be the formula detailed earlier: The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration — radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”

Take the “good” out

If you were to strike the word “good” from your vocabulary, your evaluation of colleges would be a lot more precise. And a lot more honest.

It’s a good college.

They have good professors.

It’s got a good pre-med program.

Take out the “good” and start over. Now what are you going to say?

Don’t cheat and use “amazing” or something else positive but completely nondescript. The idea here is to be precise.

Maybe your answer is, “It’s a famous college.” Maybe it’s, “It’s a college with the major I want, it feels like the right size for me, and it gave me a financial aid package that made it affordable for my family.” Both those answers are more accurate and more honest than “good.”

They have professors who teach instead of research.

They have several professors who’ve won the Nobel Prize.

They have professors in the economics department who regularly depart campus to advise on national economic policy in Washington D.C.

You’ll put your knowledge—and the strength of the professors—to the test when you go further than “good”:

70% of their students who apply to medical school get accepted.

It’s got special study abroad programs just for pre-meds so they don’t fall behind in their science studies.

It has a full-time health careers advisor, six professors students can go to for pre-med advice, and a list of former students who’ve gone to medical school and are willing to speak with undergraduates about their experiences.

Who’s more likely to know exactly what to expect from their future pre-med program—the student who stopped at “good,” or the student who dug deeper and replaced “good” with some real facts?

No college can guarantee you a successful outcome. You’re not shopping for a car you can research on Consumer Reports or experience for yourself with a lengthy test drive. You’re shopping for a four-year experience predicated in large part on your willingness to make the most of what’s available to you while you’re there. Part of being comfortable with your college list means accepting a certain amount of uncertainty. That’s why when so many people refer to a “good” college, what they really mean is a “famous” college. Famous is an easy shortcut to what you think must be “good” when you don’t know what else to base that choice on.

But the best way to improve your odds of turning that uncertainty into a four-year record of learning, growth and fun is to match the student with the right colleges. And to do that, you’ll have to consider those things that you can be certain about. Don’t accept reputations, rankings, or prestige as proxies for quality. Dig deeper into the offerings. Crash them against what you hope or expect to gain from your college experience. Seek advice from people who know you well and want the best for you. Then make your choices confidently knowing that you sought clarity where it existed and accepted uncertainty when it did not.

The parts of any college that deserve to be described as “good” will be much clearer once you take the “good” out.

Great benefits…and great writing

Zapier, an 8o-person startup that automates workflow between different applications, just started offering a “de-location package” for new employees in which they’ll reimburse up to $10,000 to help new hires currently living in the San Francisco Bay area relocate. To anywhere.

The initiative is innovative (it’s gotten some press). It makes sense for Zapier (they’re a 100% remote company). But what struck me was the utter lack of business-speak in the explanation—which was written by the company’s co-founder and CEO. Even the fine print reads like human communication that hasn’t been overly formalized by lawyers and PR reps.

“Some fine print: The $10,000 will be a reimbursement for moving expenses you incur in the first three months while working at Zapier. We also ask you stick around Zapier for at least a year. We want to make a commitment to you, so we think it’s fair you do the same. Right now we’re limiting this to folks wanting to make the move away from the Bay Area. We know other cities are expensive to live in too, but this is an experiment for us so we want to see how it goes before expanding the program.”

We all communicate in different voices—even in writing—depending on who we’re communicating with. The email you send to your best friend won’t sound the same as the one you send to your high school principal. Great communicators understand who their audience is and proceed accordingly.

But whether you’re writing an email, a memo, new website copy, or a college essay, if you strip out the voice, delete the personality, and add unnecessary formality, what you’ll be left with is:

1. Sentences that you (and pretty much anyone else) would never say out loud to another person.
2. Bad writing.

When in doubt, communicate like a human. Choose your words. And write like you’re talking to an audience of one.


What’s this about “front-loading?”

The Chicago Tribune recently ran “Decision time approaches for college applicants,” which included this important reminder for families as you compare financial aid awards:

“Be sure to read the fine print in the [financial aid] offer. Does the school promise that the awards will be renewed as long as you maintain acceptable grades? According to Mark Kantrowitz of, a college advice site, about half of all colleges practice ‘front-loading’ of grants, where the grants for the freshman year are far more generous than in subsequent years.

He notes that at, you can search each school, click on the ‘financial aid’ tab, and compare the percentage of students receiving grants, as well as compare the average grant amount for first year students with all undergrad students.”

A short shelf life

My wife and I are completing an application for our son’s admission to preschool. That is a sentence I never imagined I would write, but I’m following my own advice about matchmaking. It’s not a prestigious preschool (if there is such a thing), and they don’t make ridiculous claims about preparing toddlers for future Ivy League admission. We’re applying because it aligns with our educational and social values like curiosity, equity, and diversity in a way that we haven’t found in other local schools.

But as I’m completing the required parental essay questions and securing the necessary letter of recommendation (again, things I never imagined doing for a preschool), I’m reminded of just how personal admissions decisions can feel.

If the answer comes back yes, we’ll be excited. But we’ll also treat it as just one day in a long string of days to come. No single arrival of admissions news represents a guarantee of future success or happiness. He and his parents will have a lot of learning and work left to do to extract the value of whatever opportunities—educational or otherwise—present themselves.

But if he’s not granted admission, I know that my natural parental instinct will be some combination of dejection and defensiveness.

What did we do wrong?

How could they not admit him? He’s so wonderful! 

What did other kids or parents have that our family didn’t have?

It won’t be easy to do, but I’ll still follow my own advice and reign in these emotional reactions. I’ll remind myself that admissions decisions don’t measure the worth of a student or a parent. They don’t validate or invalidate what’s taken place to date. And most importantly, I’ll remember that no reasonable adult can claim to have suffered long-term damage from one GPA, test score, or admissions decision.

I acknowledge that it should be easier to embrace these lessons when our son is in preschool, and that it will be a lot more difficult when the news arrives from colleges.

But whatever happens, he and his parents will be just fine. So will you and your kids.

Education has a lifetime value. But admissions decisions—good or bad—have a short shelf life.

Tough private counseling love

At many of the counseling and admissions conferences we attend, at least one session will degenerate into a small contingent of private counselors who voice complaints that high school counselors:

  • don’t appreciate what we do
  • are biased against us
  • should be more open to collaboration, like taking our phone calls, communicating with us about our shared students, inviting us to present to their families, etc.

It’s always a small group. But once the complaints are raised, the tension—and tempers—start to flare. I can often see reasonable points from both camps in these debates, but I’ll use my space here to address the contingent I’ve been part of for nearly 18 years—private counselors.

First, are there specific experiences where one or more of those complaints above might have merit for a private counselor? Sure. Many of us have met that high school counselor whose biases run deep, who’s sure that all private counselors care more about making money than we do about helping our students, who acts as if they’d sooner invite identity thieves to connect with their campus community than grant similar access to a private counselor. Those instances are a lot less frequent than they used to be, but they still happen.

But there are some private counselors who never feel compelled to voice those complaints, who enjoy a good relationship with high school counselors, and who are able to work around the occasional bias and still do great work for their kids. What are they doing differently, and how can you do the same?

There’s no quick-and-easy checklist to follow, but here are five guiding principles that, if you stick with them, will go a long way towards winning over the high school counselors who haven’t fallen prey to industry biases or the occasional bad private counseling apple.

1. Give credit to get credit.
The first step towards earning respect is offering it where it’s due. The very best private counselors revere high school counselors for having a much harder job than we do. They counsel the student who’s failing algebra and field the calls from the parent who insists their student be placed in the now full AP class. But more importantly, they are on the front lines assisting students with a broad range of challenges—academic, emotional, psychological, physical, and family–that most private counselors aren’t expected to address as part of our work. And in between all of this, they somehow have to find a way to advise their students through the college admissions process. Private counselors, the sooner you recognize and appreciate the difficult and vital nature of the work our colleagues on the high school side are doing, the sooner you can expect due respect in return.

2. Don’t expect a space on their work plate.
Yes, there can be benefits to private counselors and high school counselors collaborating. But you are not entitled to a high school counselor’s time and attention. Why should it be their job to regularly take your phone calls, to invite you to campus, to help you access, enroll, and yes, even to do a better job for your students? Remember, you likely aren’t the only private counselor in town. Is the high school counselor responsible for speaking with all of them? I hope not. As I explained above, high school counselors have too much to do for too many students. Their job is not to help you, it’s to help their kids. The more time they can spend doing just that, undistracted by other demands, the better. Appreciate whatever time they can give you. But don’t expect it, and don’t assume that their refusal to give any necessarily means that they don’t respect what you do.

3. Don’t make their job harder.
We’ve all experienced the frustration when someone unravels the advice we’ve worked hard to impart on our student. The family friend recommends unrealistic schools. The neighbor belittles the summer plans the student left your office excited about. The parent rewrites (and unknowingly ruins) their student’s essay. Outside meddling often makes our job harder. Make sure you aren’t doing the same to your students’ high school counselors. Start by reminding your student that you do not replace their high school counselor. Encourage kids to meet regularly with their counselors and to attend their school’s college planning events. And most importantly, never tell a student that their counselor is wrong just because their advice seems to differ from yours. In those cases, are you sure it’s not your advice that needs correcting? And if not, assume good intent, extenuating circumstances, or even just a simple breakdown in teenage communication.

4. Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Steve Martin said it. Then a study skills author wrote about it. And any of us can follow it. Great work always stands out. It’s better than any marketing or advertising you could do. If you consistently make and keep your promises to your customers, if you run a business you can be proud of, and if you make reasonable efforts to contribute to the profession and to the counseling community as a whole, you’ll make a well-deserved name for yourself. And you’ll find that more high school counselors start to see you as a respected colleague instead of a suspicious outsider.

5. Grow with good apples.
All professions have their great and not-so-great representatives. Private and high school counseling are no different. You may run across a bad apple on the high school side who treats you unfairly without cause (just as a high school counselor may run across a private counselor who doesn’t exactly make the rest of us proud). When that happens, accept that you’ll never please everybody. Then get back to work earning the approval and respect of the people who matter most—your students and your fellow great counselors.

Play the game right

Jim, my friend from college who, as I shared here, died suddenly last fall, had spent years coaching his sons’ Little League baseball teams. As the new season opened in their hometown recently, the league honored Jim with an unveiling of jerseys bearing his initials, the welcoming of his younger brother, Mark, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and a reminder to the league’s players to do as Jim always coached them to do—to play the game right.

Jim wanted to win as much as any coach, but that’s not why he spent so much of his free time guiding Little Leaguers. He loved instilling in his players his love and respect for the game. You never saw one of Jim’s players lollygag on or off the field—they ran with purpose. No player ever showed up with a uniform shirt untucked or a hat worn askew. And it was Jim who invented the “Right Field Hero” award, regularly presented to his right fielder who would sprint from his outfield post to back-up every throw to first base, a practice that took discipline for a player to do consistently, but was sure to save at least one errant throw per game.

Jim’s players had fun playing and competing. But even more importantly, they were proud of the way they honored the game. Baseball comes with its share of hard knocks—strike outs, errors, missed signals—even the best-coached teams have their off days. But the players Jim coached could always hold their heads high. Even on those rare occasions when they didn’t play the game well, they always played it right.

You don’t have to be an athlete to play your game right. Some of the best college essays I ever brainstormed with students came from those who honored and respected the activities they participated in. The ocean lifeguard who talked about how difficult but important it was to keep a watchful eye for hours at a time because rip currents don’t announce themselves ahead of time. The computer programmer who swore there was such a thing as beautiful code if you knew what to look for. The Eagle Scout who took guff from his friends for always carrying a first aid kit, but who’d been called upon to use it on more than one occasion. It wasn’t about winning, garnering accolades, or cementing a college admissions advantage. Each of these students took pride in honoring the craft they’d chosen to commit themselves to.

Colleges know that the teen artist, musician, writer, journalist, budding mathematician, day care volunteer, emergency medical technician, placekicker, mechanic, etc. who plays their respective game right, and who takes pride in honoring their craft, has the capacity for that instinct even if it redirects to a different game in college. They’re the ones who will get up early for a class in their chosen major or go the extra mile for the club they’re helping to build. They’ll improve the refereeing for intramural sports programs and lobby for funds to repaint the dorm walls. They’ll visit professors’ office hours and make regular appointments with their academic advisors. Playing the game right makes you, the game, and everyone else who’s playing better.

However you’re choosing to spend your time, whatever game you’re investing your energy into playing, remember how much value there is to be found when you bring your heart to it. Follow the example Coach Jim taught his players and show your pride by playing the game right.

Final college decisions: the financial piece

As senior families begin considering their college options among the schools that said yes, it’s also important to consider the financial questions tied to those decisions, like “How much does each school really cost?” “Should we take out loans?” and “Should students be expected to help pay?” Here are a few past posts, with some links to some outside expert advice, to help guide you through this portion.

First, make sure you know how to compare your financial aid awards (hint: financial aid can come in several forms, and not all of them are a discount off the sticker price).

Here’s some advice about whether or not kids should help pay for their education.

And if you do decide to have your kids chip in for their education, this article features some particularly helpful advice from Kalman Chany, author of Paying for College without Going Broke.

Long-term payoff

My senior year of high school, our boys basketball team won the league title. But on a team full of all-leaguers and future college players, the fan favorite was a scrappy junior on the bench named Dave. He didn’t get much playing time. But when Dave would enter the game, that’s when the show—and the cheering—would start.

Dave would play his 12 or 8 or 2 minutes like he might never get the chance to set foot on the court again. He’d play frenetic defense. He’d dive to the floor for every loose ball. He’d even run to and from the time-out huddles like it was a race. His energy and enthusiasm were so contagious that the fans in the stands (of which I was one) couldn’t wait for him to get the call-up to enter the game.

I still remember the game when an opponent stole the ball. Dave chased him down the full length of the court like his life was on the line, and managed to block what should have been a sure layup. Dave—and the home court fans—celebrated like he’d just won the Super Bowl for us.

It turns out that all that hustle off the bench didn’t go unnoticed. I stumbled on this podcast last week and learned that Dave spent his senior year as our starting point guard, then played three years of junior college basketball before chasing—and reaching—his dream of playing for a Division I basketball team—Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Today, Dave is an academic advisor at UNLV. And I’m sure that he still retains and employs all those characteristics he developed coming off the bench back in high school—the work ethic, scrappy hustle, the spirit and the willingness to do what it takes to create opportunities. I can’t imagine a better example to set for college—and high school—students.

I write often here about the importance of making an impact, on becoming such an indispensable part of what you’re doing that people would miss you if you were gone. That high school basketball team in 1989 would not have been the same—for the players, coaches, or fans–without Dave coming off the bench. But imagine if someone had discouraged Dave from continuing to play the game he so clearly loved.

You’re just riding the bench. Good colleges won’t appreciate this. You should go start a club or volunteer or do something else that will look good on your college application.

What a loss that would have been.

Twenty years from now, most of today’s high school students will not be able to look back and draw a predictable straight line between their past high school activity and what will have become their career. But you probably will be able to trace the development of your skills, characteristics, talents, and other qualities that aren’t encapsulated on a transcript or a test score report.

Some involvements have an immediate payoff in the form of honors, awards, or other accolades. But the effort, passion, commitment, and resilience to keep going—those are the rewards that pay off over time.