There’s a better way

This video of cyclist Michael Guerra sums up pretty much all of the recommendations I make on this blog. And it’s also a good reminder of how we should approach anything important.

He didn’t break established rules. He didn’t cheat. Not sure it’s so safe for him, but he didn’t appear to put anyone else at risk. He just considered that maybe what everyone else was doing wasn’t the best way. And that opened the door to finding a smarter, better, harmless way to get where he wanted to go.

Maybe the prestige-obsessed, overworked, over-scheduled, under-rested, over-test-prepped, anxiety-filled rite of passage isn’t the best way to prepare for college and for life?

Financial aid beyond the basics

Many of the best practices to pay for college are fairly easy to comprehend. Save as much as possible (preferably in a 529 plan). Apply for need-based financial aid. Don’t refrain from applying to colleges out of your budget (you might get aid to help), but don’t ultimately attend a school that will put you in more debt than you can pay off.

But the process becomes much more complicated with individual circumstances. Divorce, disability, layoffs—there’s an answer to each scenario, but rarely one that’s found within the discussions of the basics.

Last month, expert Mark Kantrowitz joined Washington Post’s nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary for a live chat, “Color of Money Live: How to plan college savings.” They answered a variety of questions, almost all of which pertain to topics that while not uncommon still extend beyond the basics. If you’d like to dive into the details, the full transcript is here.

Admissions agency

I’ve heard my friend and Collegewise Chief Academic Officer, Arun Ponnusamy, remind students how much “agency” they have in the college admissions process. He’s referring to your power, influence, and instrumentality. Students, you might feel like you don’t get a voice, that the world has already decided that famous colleges are better, that test scores measure your worth, that you are a voiceless cog in a process that’s defined all the acceptable outcomes. But that perception just isn’t true. It’s your process, it’s your future, and the more you recognize and embrace your agency, the better it’s all going to go for you. He should know. He read applications at three of the most selective colleges in the universe (University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA). And he’s helped hundreds of students apply and get accepted to the right colleges.

As the director of college counseling and outreach at The Derryfield School in New Hampshire and a widely trusted admissions expert, Brennan Barnard has also spent years on the front lines helping students find their college admissions agency. His latest Forbes piece, “College Admission, Helplessness, And Choice,” doesn’t just remind students that they have far more agency than they may realize; he actually lays out a dozen specific areas, from high-stakes testing to college rankings to peer pressure, and offers both encouragement and advice to help students regain their voices.

If you’re a student, please read it. If you’re a counselor, please share it. And if you’re a parent, please encourage your kids to embrace it (and please applaud them if they do).

When it’s personal

College admissions is personal. An admissions officer who’s assigned to your geographic territory, who reads your essays and letters of rec and the summary from your interviewer–they get to know the student behind the grades and test scores. To the degree you’ve shared, they know about your life, your circumstances, your challenges, and your dreams. And when the information is compelling enough to merit a recommendation for admission, they are personally invested, ready to go to the committee and plead their case (MIT describes this personal investment powerfully in this past blog entry).

So how do you think they take it if they find out you’ve misrepresented yourself in your application? UVA sums that feeling up with yesterday’s Tweet:


When they work to make it personal, they take the outcome personally. Make sure you’re on the right side of that personal investment.

Good reassurance

Some families want to measure every potential decision based on its perceived college admission value. Would it be better to go to a summer program or to volunteer? Which leadership position would be the most impressive? Should I edit the yearbook or audition for the school play? Making informed decisions that satisfy colleges’ stated requirements is good planning. But making every decision against an imagined rubric where colleges label some choices as inherently more valuable (to them) than others is not only letting someone else make all your decisions for you, but also guessing—often incorrectly—what the decider thinks is important.

What many of these families are seeking is reassurance. They want reassurance that this is the right choice, that they will not regret it. They want some sort of proof that everything will be OK. It’s completely natural to want this. But the problem with reassurance is that it’s not a renewable resource. As soon as you receive it, it’s gone. It doesn’t last. If you’ve ever checked your pockets a dozen times for your passport or your phone or your wallet—just to make sure it’s still there—you’ve experienced this. If you’re a family who seeks lots of admissions information and advice but never feels better after receiving it, you’ve experienced this. And if you’re a counselor who feels like you repeatedly answer different versions of the same questions from the same family, you’ve experienced this.

If you’re used to seeking reassurance, it’s a hard habit to break. But if you recognize it as a habit, and you want to break it, one way to start is to accept that no amount of reassurance will ever be enough. Seeking it just perpetuates both your need and the cycle of seeking.

And the more difficult but ultimately liberating realization is that you can find your own reassurance. You know if you’d rather go to a summer program or volunteer. You know whether you’d like to edit the yearbook or audition for the school play. You know which leadership position actually appeals to you based on the change you’d like to make within that organization.

You still can’t be sure everything will be OK (we really never know that). But you know what’s important to you, you know what the factors are, and most importantly, you know the person making the decision. That’s good reassurance.

Interviews conducted at their homes?

In the last few weeks, several of our Collegewise students have been invited to attend their college interviews at the interviewers’ homes. Not surprisingly, many families have some reluctance sending their teenager to a stranger’s home. But they also don’t want to do anything that would reflect negatively on the student’s candidacy.

It’s certainly not standard interview operating procedure to invite a student to the home. That doesn’t necessarily mean such an invitation is a signal of inappropriate behavior, but it’s not common practice and generally not something colleges endorse. If you’re presented with a similar scenario and would like some guidance on how to navigate it, here’s a past post with my recommendations.

Are results everything?

It’s easy to justify a lot of behaviors, particularly during the college admissions process, by pointing to one result.

Your ACT score went up five points. You earned a 4.0 GPA. You got into the college of your choice. What’s more important than those results?

What if those 50 hours of prep cost your family more money than they could afford? What if you spent less time doing something you love like playing the clarinet? What if you alienated your teachers and fellow students with a get-an-A-at-any-cost mentality? Were the side effects worth it?

Don’t just consider the results. Consider the side effects, too.

Acting as if

You probably see roles or opportunities that you wish were available to you. Team captain, shift manager, a valued team member or trusted confidant or even a leader. Whatever the goal, you’ll reach it faster if you start acting as if.

How would a team captain behave before they were actually the captain? Here’s what they don’t do—wait in the background, more concerned with their own success than they are the team’s, but resolving to change that behavior if they get the captain’s nod. The path to becoming the team captain is to behave like one.

I’m not suggesting you usurp or undermine existing authority. You’re not acting as if you’ve already been elected club president. You’re acting as if you were someone who will one day be elected club president. What does that person do, today, tomorrow, and the week after that? Whatever the answer, that’s where you want to go.

You learn, you get experience, and you demonstrate your potential when you’re acting as if.

Like they were in the room

Here’s a quick but effective way to improve the mood, trust, and overall team health of your group—talk about people like they were in the room.

Your club, your organization, your counseling office–wherever you and others come together to do work you care about, make the decision to talk about people as if they were there in the room with you. Don’t drag one person’s work or reputation through the coals just because you think their absence brings you immunity. When you disparage someone who isn’t present, you’re not just doing damage to them. You’re damaging your reputation. You’re damaging morale. And you’re damaging the mutual trust and respect that’s vital to the health and success of any group.

It’s simple, it’s free, and best of all, it’s your choice.

Forthcoming forgiveness

Students, parents, employees–even the most well-intentioned of us screw up occasionally. And when others are affected, those moments are a perfect opportunity to build your reputation rather than to break it.

Yesterday, Basecamp, the project management software used by hundreds of thousands of people, including me and my team at Collegewise, went down for five hours. Basecamp allows users to do everything around a project, from posting and editing files, to communicating with team members, to assigning and tracking to-do’s. Used as intended, you don’t have to rely on other services for file sharing, for group chat, or even for email. Basecamp does it all. That’s their sell. If you used the tool exactly as they encourage you to do, five hours is a long time to be without it, especially if you have a lot of people working on an important project. It also turned out that the malfunction was entirely avoidable.

And yet, by the time the problem was fixed, Basecamp’s reputation as a tool and a company appeared to be even stronger than it was before. How did they pull that off? I saw five components to their approach:

1. They alerted all of their users right away. They didn’t wait for people to reach out to their help lines just to learn that software was temporarily down.

2. They continued to update their users with information and estimates about when the problem would be fixed.

3. Each of these updates was detailed and shared seemingly all of the information available at the time of the posting.

4. They never said or wrote that truly awful phrase, “We apologize for any inconvenience.”

5. Their CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson, stepped up and took personal responsibility for the problem. Here are some excerpts from his post after the problem had been fixed:

“All in, we were stuck in read-only mode for almost five hours. That’s the most catastrophic failure we’ve had at Basecamp in maybe as much as a decade, and we could not be more sorry. We know that Basecamp customers depend on being able to get to their data and carry on the work, and today we failed you on that…We’ve let you down on an avoidable issue that we should have been on top of. We will work hard to regain your trust, and to get back to our normal, boring schedule of 99.998% uptime…It’s embarrassing to admit, but the root cause of this issue with running out of integers has been a known problem in our technical community…We should have known better. We should have done our due diligence when this improvement was made to the framework two years ago. I accept full responsibility for failing to heed that warning, and by extension for causing the multi-hour outage today. I’m really, really sorry.”

The steps are less important than the overarching approach. They cared. They communicated. They empathized. They brought a human to the forefront instead of hiding behind company layers. And most importantly, someone stood up, took responsibility, and sincerely apologized.

After Hansson posted his explanation and apology, the comments and social media feeds filled with users’ expressions of forgiveness, encouragement, and even praise for both Hansson and Basecamp. Here’s a screenshot:



You’ll screw up (or do so again) one day. It happens to everyone, often in spite of the best efforts or intentions. When it happens, run towards—not away from—the responsibility. Apologize to people who were affected and acknowledge that you understand what the mistake meant for them. Resolve to do better and mean it.

Whether you’re just one person who let down a friend or a company who let down thousands of customers, forgiveness will almost certainly be forthcoming if you handle the mistake correctly.