How to be lucky in college admissions

If you want to have more luck in your life (and in your college admissions process), it turns out you can create it. 

According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor: Changing Your
Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles," lucky people think and behave in ways that unlucky people don't.

Here are the excerpts from an interview in Fast Company magazine.  I think there are lots of ways to apply this to your college admissions process. 

1. Maximize chance opportunities
"Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing, and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, which include building and maintaining a strong network, adopting a relaxed attitude to life, and being open to new experiences."

Do you have the initiative to take a psychology class outside of school just because it looks interesting, or to try karate just because it looks fun?  Would you take the opportunity to start a car wash business with a friend or take a road trip to look at a college you've never heard of or introduce yourself to some students on campus once you got there?  Lucky students would do those things.  Unlucky students wouldn't try anything unless they were guaranteed it could help them get into college.  

2. Listen to your lucky hunches.
"Lucky people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings."

Are you willing to listen to your gut instincts and apply to the colleges that you really believe are best for you, regardless of what your friends or the US News rankings say?  Would you write the college essay you want to write about how you sing in the shower even though your parents think you should write about doing community service?  Would you pick Oberlin over Princeton because it just felt right?  Lucky students would.  Unlucky students would never take what feels like a risk.  They always want to do what feels safe and guaranteed.

3. Expect good fortune.
"Lucky people are certain that the future will be bright. Over time, that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it helps lucky people persist in the face of failure and positively shapes their interactions with other people."

Are you excited about your future life in college?  Do believe that you'll learn and have fun wherever you go to school?  Do you have enough faith in yourself to know that your work ethic and personal characteristics, not the name of the college you go to, are what will ultimately make you successful?  Lucky students do.  Unlucky students believe that everything hinges on whether or not Stanford or Duke or UCLA says "Yes."   

4. Turn bad luck into good.
Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, they don't dwell on the ill fortune, and they take control of the situation.

Whenever a parent tells me that her daughter is "just devastated" by a rejection from her dream college, there's a part of me that wants to swoop in and tell that kid, "Get over it.  Do you know how many people would do anything just to have the chance to go to college at all?"

Lucky students don't dwell on college rejections, or the fact that they lost the election for senior class president, or that the their girlfriend broke up with them.  They believe there's too much life to live to get bogged down by those events.  They know there are other colleges and other offices and other girls out there, and that they'll probably end up with a better one now.  Unlucky students just want to lament their fate.    

You can be a lucky student (or parent) if you want to be. 

How pizza at Harvard led to a billion dollar company

We're always reminding families that many benefits of a college
experience can't be predicted.  You can't read about them in a college
guidebook or measure them with college rankings.  But you can find them
at any college.  Here's a good example.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is a Harvard grad.  He's interviewed in
the "Alumni Q & A" section of Harvard's website, and I thought this
was interesting.

What did Harvard bring out in you that you
might not have had when you arrived on day one?

"For me, most of
what I got out of Harvard was outside the classroom, including people
that I met and running the pizza business."

But that's only part
of the story.

During his junior year, Tony started that pizza
business on the ground floor of his dorm.  Here's the story, as Tony
described it in his new book


It was through the pizza business that I met Alfred.  Alfred was our
number one customer, and he stopped by every night to order a large
pepperoni pizza from me.

We had two nicknames for
Alfred while in college: "Human Trash Compactor" and "Monster." He
earned these nicknames because every time a group of us would go out to a
restaurant (usually it was a group of ten of us at a late-night greasy
Chinese place called The Kong), he would literally finish everyone's
leftovers from their plates.  I was just thankful that I wasn't one of
the roommates he shared his bathroom with.

to me, it really wasn't that weird that Alfred would stop by every
night to order an entire pepperoni pizza from me.  But sometimes, he
would stop by a few hours later and order another large pepperoni
pizza.  At the time, I remember thinking to myself, Wow, this boy can

I found out several years later that Alfred was taking
the pizza upstairs to his roommates, and then selling them off by the
slice…We ended up doing the math a few years ago and figured out that,
while I made more money from the pizza business than Alfred, he made
about ten times more money per hour than me by arbitraging pizza.

didn't know it at the time, but our pizza relationship was the seed
that would lead to many million-dollar business opportunities together
down the road.

And here's what Alfred ended up doing after college.

In your college essays, just say it

When you write your college essays.  Don’t tense up.  Relax.  Just say it.

When soldiers are hanging out in the army barracks, they might crack jokes, trade stories and be themselves.  But when the general walks in, everything changes.  The soldiers leap up and stand at attention.  Nobody wants to stand out, because that can get you yelled at.  It’s better to just play it safe, stand up straight and shut up, which makes sense because nobody wants to be forced to clean urinals. 

Unfortunately, that’s what most students do when they start to write their college essays. They tell the story much differently than they would if they were just telling it to a friend.  They write in a stiff and formal way that doesn’t reveal their voice or their personality.  They’re afraid of insulting the generals on the admissions committee.  They won't just say it.

When you make this mistake, you become one of the masses—a soldier standing at attention instead of a student standing out.  That’s going to go over great in the army, but it’s not going to get you into college.    

Remember, this is not an essay for your high school English class.  Tell it like it is.  Use your own words.  Don’t use the word “therefore.”  No member of any admissions committee is going to yell at you or make you do push-ups.  So relax. 

I'm not saying you should just blather on without worrying whether or not the story sounds good—good story telling and good writing mean that you have to make it interesting.  But you don’t have to make it academic and formal.

This isn't the army.  Just say it.

How to write a good email message

Today's college applicant is much more likely to email, not call, someone with a question or request.  Whenever you email someone, the person on the receiving end is going to make assumptions and judgments about you based on what you write and how you write it.  So here's an email checklist before you send anything to an admissions officer, teacher, counselor, or anyone else involved in your college application process.

1. Do you actually have permission to email this person?  A college rep who hands you his card at a college fair and says, "Feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions" has given you permission.  But just because you found the email address for the Dean of Admissions online doesn't mean she's invited you to email her.  Don't be a spammer.

2. Make sure your email address is just a name, not something embarrassing like  Get a new email address just for college application stuff if you have to.

3. Make the subject line something descriptive.  "Question" isn't descriptive.  "Question from a fall 2011 applicant" is.

4. Address the person by name at the beginning, like, "Ms. Harrington-"  Imagine if someone walked up to you and just started asking you a question without even saying hi first.  Wouldn't it be rude (and a little weird)?

5. If the person doesn't know you or may not remember you, identify yourself in the first paragraph.

6.Keep your email to one screen.  Don't write something so long that they have to scroll through it.

7. Use punctuation, capitalization, and proper grammar.  Don't make excuses not to do this.  This is not a text message.  Nobody ever looked stupid for sending a properly capitalized and punctuated email, but they have looked that way for ignoring the rules. 

8. Observe the difference between "your" and "you're."  Sorry–I know that's related to #7 but it's ignored often enough that I thought it deserved its own mention.

9. Don't ever type in all caps.  When you write "PLEASE RESPOND TO ME ASAP" it reads like you're yelling at the person.

10. Be careful with exclamation points for the same reason.  "I really hope you can write my letter!" sounds like you're yelling.

11. It's OK to write like you talk as long as you're respectful.  "The purpose of my email is to request your assistance with my college applications" is too formal.  "I'm writing to ask you if you might be able to help me with my college applications" gets the job done.

12. Use a normal font.  Think black type and normal size.  No bright colors, cursive, blinking lights or animated creatures of any kind.   

13. If you're asking for something, say "please."

14. Always say "thank you" at the end. 

15. Proofread it carefully.

16. Type your full name at the end of the message.  If you need a reply back, leave a phone number, too, so the person has the option of calling.

17. Don't include a quote in your auto-signature.  You don't need to remind this person that "the only way to have a friend is to be one."  And nobody in the history of email has ever read one of those quotes and said, "Wow, that really made me stop and think." 

18.  Be careful CCing people on the email.  The receiver doesn't know those people.  Imagine if you walked into this person's office and didn't introduce the two people you brought in tow. 

19. Think twice before you mark your email "urgent."  It might be urgent to you, but it's not necessarily urgent to the person you're sending it to.

20. Read it through one last time and try to imagine receiving this message yourself.  Is it clear?  Is it polite?  Does it make you want to reply?  If the answer to any of those questions is "No," wait to send it until you re-write your way to a "Yes."

*Bonus email tip that may or may not have to do with college admissions:

Are you angry?  Are you sending this email to someone who's made you angry?  Warren Buffet once said, "You can always tell a guy to go to hell tomorrow.  You don't give up that opportunity."  But once you put your anger out there, it's there.  You can't take it back.  So write it, but don't send it.  Come back tomorrow and read it again.  And if you're still angry, then click "Send."

Tip for private college counselors: choose your customers

The most successful businesses know what kind of customer is most likely to like what they do, to spread the word, and be a loyal fan.  The smartest businesses spend all their time trying to please that particular customer.

Appleguy If you’re looking for cheap electronics that get the job done without being flashy, you’re not an Apple customer.  Apple is as much a fashion company as they are a computer company.  If you don’t care how flashy and cool your new phone is, Apple’s not trying to win your affection.  They want this guy who will raise his sleek new Iphone like an Olympic medal.  This is who Apple is built to please.

Southwest airlines doesn't hide what they do well.  If you want the cheapest ticket and you don't care about your seat selection, a meal or a movie, (and if you might be amused by singing flight attendants), Southwest is your best bet.  They’ve built their entire airline to delight this particular customer.  They don't pretend to be anything else. 

Trader Joe's doesn't try to earn the business of the shopper who wants to buy motor oil at the grocery store or who wants 10 varieties of Ragu spaghetti sauce to choose from.  It exists to delight people who rave to their friends about the wasabi peas or avocado salsa or peanut butter filled pretzels they found at Trader Joe's.  Trader Joe's doesn't find new customers for its products; it finds new products for its customers.  And its fans won’t shut up about it!

If you're a private counselor who's just starting out (or if you're already one and want to grow), think about who you want to please.  What kinds of students/families do you work best with?  Who seems predisposed to appreciate what you do best? 

What would happen if you engineered your entire practice to attract and delight only those kinds of customers?

At Collegewise, we know what kinds of families tend to be happiest with us.  And we built our programs to make those families happy.  We're not the right choice for everybody, but we're OK with that.

If you want to build a business that delights customers, start by choosing customers that are most likely to be delighted by what you do. 

Make college applications all about you

Talking only about yourself is a lousy way to have a conversation (and a surefire way to make sure a first date never leads to a second date).  But it's a great way to fill out a college application.

Unless a college specially asks you to talk about someone or something other than yourself, every essay and short answer question should focus on you.  You're the subject.  Bring the focus back to you as often as you can.

Even a question about why you want to attend the college should focus on you, not the college.

This applicant is making the college the focus:

"I visited Reed last summer and the students seemed very friendly and open.  They made me feel comfortable and knew I could see myself going to school there.” 

We don't learn much about that applicant.  But this one inserts himself into the response.

“When I visited Reed with my mom last summer, I knew it was the right place for me when I overheard one student say to his friends, “Speaking of bacteria…” and they all just started laughing hilariously.  I don’t even know what they were talking about or why it was so funny.  But it was probably something dorky, and that’s exactly who I am.  I’ve never known where the cool party was in high school and I’ve never cared.  I want to hang out with kids who aren’t ashamed that they’re terrible at sports but great at reading, like me.  I want to be with kids who think bacteria jokes are funny.”   

More details about you and your experience almost always make your story more compelling.  This applicant's description of a challenge he overcame doesn't help him stand out:

“I went to my teacher for extra help every day after school for three weeks.  Because of my hard work, I eventually started to understand chemistry better.”

But in this revision, the additional detail about his experience makes us feel like we were there with him. 

"For those three weeks, Mr. Chapman knew I was going to show up at his classroom at 3:05 p.m. every day.  I’d sit at a desk right in the front row while Mr. Chapman explained chemistry problems on the board.  And at some point during our second week of working together, I realized that I was starting to get it.  I was doing the problems on my own and Mr. Chapman was just smiling at me proudly."

Colleges spend countless hours crafting applications that will help them get to know their applicants better.  If you want your applications to help you stand out, give colleges what they want.  Focus on you.  Make yourself the subject of your stories.  Put enough detail in that nobody else applying could write the same essay.

College applications are a rare opportunity when you can talk about yourself at length without seeming self-obsessed.  So enjoy it. 

Putting a little soul into your college applications

One of the definitions of "soul" is "the animating principle; the essential element or part of something." 

Successful college applicants don't just complete their college applications; they use those applications to reveal essential elements of their personality and help admissions officers get to know them better.  They inject a little soul into their applications.  There really is an art to it.  And tomorrow, we're unveiling a new seminar for our Collegewise families to teach the art.  

Tomorrow, I'll deliver the first session of our new seminar, "The Art of College Applications."  We already do seminars about the college essay, interview, and how to to secure strong letters of recommendation, so this new seminar will teach how to use the remaining short essays and "quick take" sections to inject a little soul into your college application. 

Specifically, I'll be teaching how to approach some of the most common short-essay prompts like these:

1.    “Tell us why you think our school is a good fit for you.”

2.    “How will you contribute to our campus community?” 

3.    “Describe your academic interests (and how do you plan to pursue them).” 

4.    “Describe a time when faced a challenge or adversity.” 

5.    “Describe a time where you made a difference in your school or community.”

6.    “Where have you experienced diversity/How will you contribute to our diversity?” 

7.    “Describe a time when you failed or made a mistake.” 

8.     "Is there anything else you would like to share with us regarding your
background or interests that you didn’t have the opportunity to share

9.    “Quick take” questions, like…

    • It would surprise my friends to know that I… 

    • If I could travel anywhere in time or space, either real or imagined, I’d go…

    • The last book I read outside of class was… 

10.   Optional essays.

You can find samples of some of the advice in the series I wrote last November, "30 Colleges, 30 Collegewise Guides to Getting In."

For students who aren’t good test takers

The worst thing about standardized tests like the SAT isn't that they can keep you out of colleges you want to go to (though that's admittedly pretty bad).  It's that they make kids who don't score well feel badly about themselves.  Low scores chip away at the legitimate pride a student has about her good grades, or basketball achievements, or artistic talents.  Nobody in the history of civilization failed in life because of SAT scores (and nobody ever became happy and successful because of them either).

One of the most outspoken critics of the SAT is John Katzman, the founder of The Princeton Review.  This interview with PBS took place in 1998, but it still has legs today.  Here's my favorite part:


The SAT is a scam. It has been around for 50 years.  It has never measured anything.  And it continues to measure nothing. And the whole game is that everybody who does well on it is so delighted by their good fortune that they don't want to attack it.  And they are the people in charge. Because of course, the way you get to be in charge is by having high test scores. So it's this terrific kind of rolling scam that every so often, somebody sort of looks and says–well, you know, does it measure intelligence?  No.  Does it predict college grades?  No.  Does it tell you how much you learned in high school?  No.  Does it predict life happiness or life success in any measure?  No.  It's measuring nothing.

You might also like what Jay Mathews has to say here in "Your SAT score has little to do with your life." 

And every frustrated tester should get familiar with Fairtest's list of schools that don't rely on test scores to make admissions decisions.

Warren Buffet’s advice for parents

I don't think being a billionaire necessarily qualifies anyone as an expert on parenting.  But I can't help but like Warren Buffet.  He still lives in the same stucco house in Omaha, NE he bought for $31,500 in 1958.  He announced in 2006 that he's giving away his fortune to charity (with 86% of it going to the Gates Foundation).  Every time I read or see an interview with him, he's likeable, self-effacing, modest, and seems like a guy who'd be fun to have a beer with. 

So for what it's worth, here's his take on how "parents can make a better human being."


The power of unconditional love. I mean, there is no power on earth like unconditional love. And I think that if you offered that to your child, I mean, you’re 90 percent of the way home. There may be days when you don’t feel like it — it’s not uncritical love; that’s a different animal — but to know you can always come back, that is huge in life. That takes you a long, long way. And I would say that every parent out there that can extend that to their child at an early age, it’s going to make for a better human being.

The full interview is here.

Questions from our counselor training final exam

Every counselor hired at Collegewise must complete our 40-hour training program, observe meetings with students and parents, and pass a final exam.  Whether you're joining us right out of college or leaving a job in admissions at a highly selective university, we think it's important to train everyone from a common starting point. An experienced admissions officer obviously knows how colleges make decisions, but we've intellectualized that information and made it teachable to high school kids and parents.  Our training doesn't just teach the information; it also teaches new counselors the best way to explain that information to families. 

As I write this blog entry, our newest counselor (who was an assistant director of admissions at USC before joining us) has finished her Collegewise training and is completing her final exam.  There are over 100 questions on the exam covering everything from how colleges admit students, to how we counsel kids, to how to deal with difficult counseling situations. 

Here is a sampling of some of the questions we ask:

1. Why is matchmaking an especially important admissions element for students who want to attend the most selective colleges?

2. List the four elements colleges consider when assigning a student an “Academic Ranking” during the admissions process.  It’s not necessary to describe or elaborate on each of the elements at this time.

3. What are the 5 “Core-Subjects” that most colleges use to calculate a student’s GPA?

4. When a Collegewise counselor helps a student select extracurricular activities, what is the single most important question a counselor should ask the student in regards to each activity?

5. List 5 clichéd essay topics that high school students often choose for college essays.

6. Letters of recommendation are an important part of college admissions.  What are three important questions we should encourage students to ask themselves when considering which teachers might be good choices to write letters.

7. Name two schools that focus almost exclusively on “pre-professional”

8. Define “single choice early action” and name one school who uses it.

9. Create a testing calendar and a preliminary college list for the student
listed below.  Assume he started with us in August going into his
junior year.  Use the Collegewise testing calendar and the Collegewise
preliminary college list.       

Michael’s GPA at the end of his sophomore year is a 3.6.  He is
scheduled to take the following in his junior year:  AP English,
Pre-calculus, US History, Honors Chemistry, Ceramics and AP French
IV.    Michael toured the UCSB and UCLA campuses 2 weeks ago.  He likes the
feeling of being on a big campus but being in a city like L.A. is too
scary for him. He’d prefer less of a city feel.  He also wants to stay
in California.

10. What are some signs that would indicate that a family might not be a
good match for the Collegewise program?

11. Based on your preliminary experience, describe the type of family who is
likely to appreciate and benefit from the Collegewise program.

12 Describe a circumstance under which a Collegewise counselor might endorse a high achieving student’s decision NOT to enroll in an available AP course (ex. AP Spanish) during her senior year of high school?  Assume the student wants to attend a highly selective college.

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