On lasting impressions

The last job I had before I started Collegewise in 1999 got off to a bad start. I’d moved across the country to take the position and arrived for my first day of work only to find my boss unavailable and my desk empty—no computer, no phone, and no access pass to get to the meeting rooms on the second floor. I spent the entire day interrupting people to ask for help and foraging for tools to get started. Worst of all, everyone important in my life reached out and asked eagerly, “How was your first day?” Day one deflated all the excitement I’d had about the position and the company. So it’s not surprising that we do first days a lot differently at Collegewise.

We have two goals when a new employee starts at Collegewise: (1) Send a clear message of “We are thrilled that you are here,” and (2) Give them a great story to tell when their friends and loved ones ask, “How was your first day?” We send out a personalized introduction of each of them to the entire company. They spend time learning from our trainers, our CEO, and their new colleagues, all of whom join them for lunch and dinner on day #1. We construct the entire experience to make them feel welcome and to give them a great story to tell. Done right, the first day sets a tone and reinforces that they’ve made a great decision to join us.

We can’t make every day as memorable as the first at Collegewise, but we’ve learned that we can create meaningful experiences that give employees the same lift. Whether it’s a promotion, a successful completion of an important project, or the anniversary of their start at Collegewise, whenever possible, we try to create a meaningful, story-worthy experience, one that shows each employee just how much they matter to us beyond a worker filling a position. Naysayers may claim that we’re a business and that employees should just do their jobs. But work is personal for the person doing the work. If we want employees who are delighted, proud, loyal, and engaged, we’ve got to give them experiences that make them feel that way.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences have Extraordinary Impact, argue that our memories don’t just take an average of our moment-by-moment experiences. We remember key events, the memorable highs (or lows). Think back to your last family vacation, your wedding day, or your child’s graduation from college. Chances are, you aren’t focusing on the details made insignificant by time. You remember the key moments that now shape the entire experience in your mind, like the family photo with Mickey Mouse, the first dance, or the moment your college graduate walked across the stage to accept his degree. Once we appreciate the value of these experiences, we can identify opportunities to embrace and create them both at work and at home.

If you’d like to create a culture of key moments in your business, start small. Identify or create an event with potential, like an employee’s first day, a salesperson’s millionth dollar in revenue, or a promotion to a new position. Then imagine it was your child, partner, or best friend. How would you like to see them treated? What story would you want them to tell you about how their workplace made them feel recognized and valued? Once you know the story, you can get to work creating one that’s personal, not programmatic.

We can’t engineer every day to be perfect at work. But if we create enough memorable experiences to enjoy and stories to tell, we can make a lasting impression as good as our first day’s.

Intellectual humility

It’s hard for an admissions committee not to notice when a student has demonstrated a sincere love of learning. A real love of learning has a lot less to do with the drive to get good grades than it does the genuine curiosity to know more, to understand, to fill in learning’s blank spots. A student who gushes about the joy she finds working through the most difficult calculus problem sets with her fellow math-letes is demonstrating more love of learning than the student who responds to a query about his favorite subject with, “I like math because there’s always a right answer.”

But nobody loves to learn everything equally, and colleges don’t expect that you will, either. That’s why the most appealing students balance their intellectual curiosity with intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is the confidence to admit what you don’t know, to consider different points of view, and even to find something fascinating simply because it’s beyond your comprehension. It lets you admit the absence of knowledge while still respecting the subject. The student who discusses why she loves Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is demonstrating intellectual curiosity. A student who relates how he wanted to read the book but couldn’t get past page 50 because he just couldn’t understand it is demonstrating intellectual humility. And both are demonstrating traits that will help them learn, grow, and succeed in college.

College admissions pressure pushes some kids to focus so much on demonstrating what they know that they lose the joy of discovering knowledge and the comfort with the absence of it. But the most rewarding learning happens when you pair both together.

Three questions that lead to better college essay feedback

I’ve written many times before about the importance of taking college admissions advice from people who are qualified to deliver it, and this includes giving feedback on a college essay. You don’t need to be an admissions officer or a counselor to correct grammar and spelling. But if your family, friends, and neighbors have never been trained to guide or evaluate students during the process, they likely don’t understand the purpose of the college essay, which stories stand out and which are like all the others, or the many ways in which strong college application essays are not at all like strong academic essays.

Still, some non-admissions experts can give you great advice if you ask the right questions. Instead of simply asking, “Can you read my essay and tell me what you think?” try asking for feedback in three specific areas:

  1. Which parts of my essay are confusing or make it hard to understand what I’m trying to say?
  2. Which parts don’t sound like me?
  3. Are there any parts that just didn’t hold your interest?

Someone who knows you well is qualified to answer those questions. It’s still your responsibility to seek out the right people who care enough to feel invested in your success. But sticking to specific questions won’t just give you feedback you can actually use to make changes–it also lets you receive feedback at the reviewer’s level of expertise.

The earlier we start

My three-year-old preschooler recently arrived home with an assignment—create a project on a paper bag depicting “what home means to me.” The students could draw, attach photos, or use any other creative impulse to express their version of home. But whatever that version was, it would be displayed in the school hallways with the rest of the class’s finished work.

I understand that this is meant to encourage a shared discussion and experience for parent and student. But the idea that the work would be displayed made it difficult to follow the advice I always share with parents here—step back, don’t do things for your student that they can do themselves, and allow them to make their own mistakes. Still, we were resolute not to over-involve ourselves.

The discussion portion of the project lasted all of ten seconds before he scribbled wildly with a blue pen and proudly announced that it was an apartment downtown where he lived with all his friends. Apparently, his vision of home in that moment was not our home at all, but a different dwelling in a different location where he lived with friends but not his parents or sibling. It felt like a foreshadowing of the weeks before he leaves for college.

As of this week, Classroom A’s projects began popping up on the school hallways, most of which are elaborate parent-driven depictions involving photos of family gatherings, images of pets and siblings, and artistic renderings of various activities taking place in the home. And perched up there next to all of them is my boy’s indecipherable scribbling.

Did we do the right thing? Could we have coaxed him to watch us create something more meaningful that would have left us proud to see it depicted on the hall’s walls? As is so often the case for parents, I have no idea. I’m not a child rearing expert. I don’t know if we should feel proud or humiliated. That’s the parenting challenge. There’s no manual, no well-defined best practices or step-by-step procedure. You do what feels right.

But I do know that if we can’t step back now, how could we possibly expect to do so later when the stakes feel even higher? The future for every family is clear. Kids grow up, they move out, and they must find their way in the world. At some point, hopefully in the much distant future, parents won’t be around any longer to manage their lives even if they wanted to. We don’t get to control that eventuality. But we do get to control how we prepare ourselves and our kids.

And the earlier we start, the earlier we’ll all be prepared.

Don’t do the financial aid officer’s job for them

According to a study published in Research in Higher Education, students who don’t file the FAFSA forgo an average of $9,741 in aid.

Senior families, the FAFSA goes live today, October 1. Every student applying to college should file one (a recommendation shared by every trusted financial aid expert and college financial aid officer). And the earlier you file, the more likely you are to get aid. Don’t wait. Don’t make excuses that you’ll never get enough to afford college or that you won’t qualify at all. Assumptions like those lead to inaction, which only increases or even guarantees that you won’t get aid. It’s not your job to evaluate your financial aid qualifications. That’s a job for the financial aid officers. Please file the FAFSA and let them do their jobs.

What’s most likely to motivate?

Parents and counselors, if a student is having trouble finding the motivation to make progress on their college applications, give motivational interviewing a try.

Motivational interviewing is a therapeutic technique to get patients to discover their own motivations for making a change–one that’s even been shown to be effective in the treatment of addiction. Here’s how to use it in practice.

Ask the student, “On a scale of 1-10, how motivated are you to work on your college applications?”

Chances are that the student will respond with a low score. Let’s say the student answers, “I’m a 3.”

Then ask the student, “Why aren’t you a 2 or a 1?”

Then the student begins to explain their reasoning. Maybe they’re excited about the colleges on their list, maybe they’ve already finished two of the applications and just need to keep going on the rest, maybe they have a good idea for an essay but just haven’t started it yet. Whatever their reasons are, accept them.

In explaining their self-reported score, the student is connecting with their autonomous motivations, those that aren’t handed down from others. Plenty of research (and common sense) has shown that motivation that comes from within is a lot more effective than that from an outside source.

And speaking of coming from within, students, you don’t need a parent or counselor to use the technique on you. You can use it on yourself. Give yourself a 1-10 score on motivation, and then really think about the reasons your score isn’t lower. Chances are, you’ll start connecting with what’s most likely to motivate you.

Focused, plowing, or creative?

You might make even more progress on your college applications if you choose to work on the right portions at the right time of day.

In the best-selling When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Dan Pink explains that our biological clocks dictate our likelihood of performing at our best on a task. That’s because most people experience three stages each day, which Pink calls a peak, a trough, and a recovery. The peak, when we’re best able to concentrate, focus, and ignore distractions, occurs for most people in the morning (not first thing, necessarily, just when you’re ready to get started on your work day). The trough is when that sharp focus and deep thinking starts to wane, which for most of us happens in the early to mid-afternoon. The recovery, when we get some mental juices flowing again, typically occurs in the late afternoon or early evening (one in five people—the night owls—move in the reverse order).

According to Pink, here’s how to make the most of those times:

Do your analytical tasks, those that require you to concentrate and think more logically than creatively, in the morning during the peak. It’s a great time to revise your college essay, but not a great time to brainstorm a new one.

The trough is best reserved for administrative tasks, those that don’t require your mind to be at its sharpest. That’s a great time to fill out the informational portions of the applications—you don’t need to be on your mental A-game to remember your name, your contact information, the name of your school, etc.

And the recovery period is perfect when you need your most creative side to come through. You’ve left behind the lull of the trough, but you’re also more relaxed, more open, and less head-down and focused than you are in your morning peak. This is the time to dive into draft one of that new college essay with the story that just hasn’t presented itself to you yet.

Focus in the morning, plow through during the afternoon, and get creative in the early evening.

Learning and growth

Two of the most valuable experiences you can seek, appreciate, and relate on a college application are learning and growth.

Learning and growth take place in lots of forms, and not all of them present as successes or achievements. Teaching yourself to play the drums and then starting a band qualifies, but so does flubbing your trumpet solo due to lack of practice and resolving never to let yourself or the jazz band down again. Overcoming your struggles in AP chemistry is a pride-worthy achievement, but so is bringing your very best effort, meeting with your teacher regularly for extra help, and still scraping by with a C-. Always doing the right thing is wonderful, but so is the sincere apology you offer to make things right after you let someone down. The learning and growth are there in all those scenarios.

Expecting—or presenting—yourself to move seamlessly from one mistake-free success to the next is unrealistic. Learning and growth come in many forms, but that overall forward progress, sometimes in leaps, sometimes in incremental steps, and sometimes to make up for lost ground, is what helps you get better with age. And it’s what makes you an appealing candidate for colleges.

Seek and benefit from opportunities to learn and grow, and you’ll have no trouble presenting yourself as someone who will continue that progress once you get to college.

Even spare change adds up

Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has earned laudable trust in the education space for his willingness to share great advice for free. And with the posting of his latest piece, “Top 10 tips to growing your 529 plan funds faster,” I decided to put one piece of that advice to the hypothetical test.

8. Save the spare change. Every day, dump your spare change in a jar or jug. Every so often, contribute the contents of the change jar to your 529 plans. You’ll be surprised how quickly pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters add up.

SpareChangeHere’s the change jar that’s occupied the same spot in my house since my wife and I moved in five years ago. It’s taken that long to get even this full, mostly due to the advent of debit-cards-accepted-everywhere.

Today, I decided to count the contents. Total amount? $26.33—91 quarters, 45 nickels, and 133 pennies (plus a few Canadian coins and three tokens from a local car wash that did not figure into my calculation).

If we continued to accumulate spare change at the same rate, we’d have about $79  by the time my now 3-year-old starts college. But based on this college savings calculator, if we put that current amount into a 529 plan along with all future spare change as it arrived, we’d have approximately $179 saved for college. 100 extra dollars, just by ditching the glass and investing our (spare change) cash.

Now, I realize that $179 isn’t much when crashed against the expected cost of college in 15 years. But that figure is based on saving about 44 cents a month. Imagine how much you could save just setting aside $100 or $20 or even $5 from each paycheck.

Even spare change adds up. And it adds up even faster when invested with compound interest.

The best application-completion strategy

In what’s now become a September tradition, here’s my past post sharing Patrick O’Connor’s sane, easy-to-follow system to help seniors do the most important college application-related task—just make progress. No wasted time meticulously over-scheduling your every to-do (which rarely works), or worse, procrastinating until the last minute. Just make progress, a little bit at a time. And that state of progress eventually leads to a state of completion.

Don’t let the simplicity fool you—it’s actually a wonderful hack that can be applied to any worthwhile project, whether you’re a teen applying to college or an adult forging ahead in work and life.

Teresa Amabile, Director of Research at Harvard Business School, and developmental psychologist Steven Kramer are the authors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. As the title suggests, their research found that the single biggest factor for keeping someone excited and engaged with their work is simply making regular progress, even if it’s just a small win. And best of all, they also found that when you experience that feeling, you also become more creatively productive. The more progress you make, the better those applications are likely to get.

A waiting virtual pile of yet-to-be-started college applications is foreboding. And foreboding is a feeling you want to run away from, not toward. But that feeling of making just a little progress, of just completing that first section of an application, or hammering out that first, albeit imperfect, draft of an essay, or even just making a concrete list of to-dos so at least you know where to start, is a feeling you want to come back to the next day. Once you get a taste of the progress, you’ll chase it repeatedly. And you’ll get even better as you go.

If you’ve slowed, stalled, or not yet started your college applications, don’t focus on the totality of the project in front of you. Instead, find a way to just make progress. When you finish for the day, celebrate that win. Repeat that exercise, feed off your momentum, and you’ll eventually be celebrating your big win of submitting that final app.