Different voice, same advice

One of the risks of posting this blog every day is that advice can sometimes lose its oomph when you hear it too often from the same source. It’s the reason many parents who bring their student to Collegewise tell us, “I’m his mother—he won’t listen to me [about how to get into college].”

Vanderbilt’s Carolyn Pippen penned “Lessons from a Departing Admissions Officer.” If you’re a regular reader, you might feel like you’ve read much of it here before. And that’s exactly why I’m sharing it. I’ve written before that it’s important to seek advice from the right sources. But sometimes even a good source can start to feel stale. And a fresh source can bring new life to the same old advice.

Seek “vuja de”

“Déjà vu” describes the feeling that you’ve been here before even when experiencing something new. “Vuja de” is the opposite. You’re doing something familiar, something you’ve done many times before, but the experience feels brand new. Coined by the late comedian George Carlin, he described vuja de as “the strange feeling that none of this has ever happened before.”

Twelve years ago, my business partner Arun and I wrote the original copy for the “Careers” page of the Collegewise website. We’d just launched our site and our search for new counselors in earnest, so it was all unfamiliar territory for us. We started from scratch and hammered away, trading drafts back and forth until we had a final product we both loved. It was new. It was fresh. It didn’t sound like any other company’s website. Like so much of what we did together at Collegewise back in those days, it was thrilling to do something new for the first time.

Last week, when Arun and I went back and reviewed the copy that had been our reliable default a decade ago, we both experienced the same feeling—what was once fresh now felt dated. We’re proud of our history, but we’re not the same five-person fledgling company we were in 2005. Today, we have offices across the country. We’ve worked with more than 8,000 students. Collegewise has a book. Our counselors speak at conferences. I write this blog every day. We even have our own filmmaker now. Someone who joins Collegewise today is joining a larger, more compelling, and more successful work family than our 2005 text described. It was time to cast aside the default. We didn’t need to edit. We didn’t need to revise. We needed to start over. From scratch. Something we’d seen a hundred times before suddenly looked different to us. It was vuja de at work.

There’s nothing wrong with letting something that works do its thing. But once it becomes routine, it’s easy to go on automatic pilot, to settle into the familiar of what you’ve done and where you’ve been before. You stop looking for ways to get better. You stop noticing what’s not working as well as it used to. You lose access to one of your most powerful tools—the ability to see something for the first time. When that happens, it’s time for some vuja de.

If you want to make your club, organization, team, or even just yourself better, regularly force yourself to take a fresh look at what you’re doing. Consider whether or not the way you’ve always done it is still working. Look for opportunities to improve, to try something new, or to shake things up. Keep looking hard and eventually it will feel like you’re seeing and experiencing the formerly familiar for the first time. And that’s what leads to the new-and-improved.

Arun and I are back to starting our “Careers” page from scratch again. We’re loving the process of envisioning what’s possible, trading ideas and drafts back and forth, and breaking our own new ground just like we did 12 years ago. As recently as two weeks ago, we didn’t see the need to redo the page. Now it’s hard to imagine how we missed it.

Sometimes a fresh look—a little vuja de—is all it takes.

Bring your heart to it

Since founding Collegewise in 1999, I’ve hired over 60 people who became Collegewisers, the vast majority of whom had—or continue to have—successful runs during their time here. They didn’t all follow one path to get here. Some were admissions officers before Collegewise. Some were high school counselors. Some joined us from careers that weren’t even in education. Some went to highly selective schools. Many more did not. But they all shared one trait in common. It showed up in their cover letters, career history, and in their work here. It’s not easy to describe, but we always recognize it when we see it.

They bring their hearts to work.

People who bring their heart to work see their work as a calling. They want to find meaning and purpose in the work that they do. They don’t just want to complete a to-do list today. They want to create an even more interesting, challenging to-do list tomorrow.

They lean into learning, always looking for ways to be better, more knowledgeable, and more efficient at their jobs.

As ambitious as they are, people who bring their heart to work are also givers. They want to make not just themselves, but also their coworkers and their organization better. They’ll pitch in for a co-worker who needs help. They’ll share what they learn. They’ll look for meaningful opportunities to contribute even if it’s not technically part of their job description.

They tell the truth. They keep their promises. They treat their coworkers with respect even when they disagree with them. They do the right thing even when it’s not the easy thing.

They make a lasting impact while they’re here. They’re missed if they move on. And they leave a legacy behind after every tenure.

People who bring their heart to work are not workaholics. They know that life and family are always more important than work. Heart isn’t about how many total hours you put in. It’s how much you care during those hours that matters.

But most importantly, these Collegewisers brought their hearts to work long before they ever joined us. Whether they were in jobs that they loved or hated, it never occurred to them to hold their heart back until the perfect opportunity, title, or promotion came along. They’re just not built that way.

It’s that habit, that constant willingness to care and do even more, that made them so successful in the past, and that always leads to even better opportunities in the future.

However you plan on spending your time today—in the classroom, on the field, on the job, etc.—bring your heart with you. Care and do more than you have to. Not because it will help you get ahead, but because you just can’t imagine doing it any other way.

The first step to putting your heart into anything is bringing it with you.

Broad recognition vs. broad impact

One way to stand out in college admissions is to achieve broad recognition. The student who played violin at Carnegie Hall has achieved broader recognition for his musical abilities than the first chair in the school orchestra has. A national champion debater has broader recognition than the student who won the county competition does. “All- American” is broader recognition than “All-League.” Depending on how good you are at your chosen activity, your recognition may grow from school, to city, to county, to state, to country, and in rare cases (like teenage Olympic medalists), the world.

Effective? Yes. But broad recognition is also one of the most difficult to achieve.

A different and potentially easier path? Broad impact.

What if you organized a small cadre of musicians from the orchestra that eventually played at over 30 community events last year?

What if you started a blog with tales and tips for other speech and debate competitors, and grew it to a readership of 2,000 subscribers?

What if you offered pitching clinics on the weekends for kids, and later had a roster of 15 young hurlers who regularly show up to learn their craft from you?

Naysayers will tell you that being an All-American is more impressive than writing a blog. But we’re not all going to be state, national, or world champions. And that’s OK. Impact takes many forms. If you don’t exactly compete at the highest levels and you’d like to make your chosen activity stand out more, take what you already enjoy doing, then find a way to share it with people who will appreciate it as participants, viewers, listeners, readers, benefactors, etc.

Broad impact is available to anyone willing to create it.

Counselors: Upcoming changes to the Common App

Counselors, if you’d like to get a peek at the changes to the Common App, they’ll be hosting a free webinar, What’s New With The Common App: Enhancements, on June 12 from 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. EST. All the details are here. And thanks to Collegewise counselor Tom Barry for alerting us.

We’re also planning to release our updated annual Common App guide around July 15. We’re waiting until then because the Common App folks plan to continue tweaking the app through July 1st. Once our new guide is ready, I’ll share it here.

The opportunity of a lifetime

As we all take a moment today to honor those men and women who died serving our country, I invite students and parents to consider how many of those soldiers never had the chance to go to college, and how many parents watched their kids go to war, not move into a dorm room.

Treat the chance to attend college as the opportunity of a lifetime, because it is.

Six years later…

Six years ago, I wrote this post about a college admissions advising firm sending families a letter that I and many other counselors believed preyed on the fear that’s become so common in college admissions. Six years later, they’re still sending out the very same letter, which can only mean that it’s effective at driving sales for this business.

Here’s how the letter (still) begins:


Families deserve to hear the truth about college admissions. Sometimes that truth hurts. No, Duke isn’t a safety school. Yes, that money you put in your student’s name could hurt your financial aid eligibility. It’s not likely you’ll raise your SAT score from 900 to 1400. Great counselors do a delicate dance, giving straight answers but still leaving kids feeling encouraged and excited about their next steps in life. It’s an art, and most counselors, especially those in the high schools, are very good at it.

But my advice, much like that company’s letter, has not changed in six years. Families, don’t trust a private college advisor, tutor, or test prep company whose pitch makes you feel scared, guilty, or inadequate, especially before they’ve even met you.

It takes both compassion and guts to look families in the eye and tell them the truth. But it takes neither to prey on college admissions fears for your own professional gain.

If you work for one of those firms, don’t you and your students deserve better?

Better grades in just 15 minutes?

It’s not surprising that when an important task needs to get done, your chances of getting it right the first time improve if you take a few minutes to think through what you’re about to do. It turns out studying for an exam is no different.

A Stanford researcher divided a class of students facing an exam into two groups. One group began their preparation by taking just 15 minutes to consider:

  • What material might appear on the test
  • Which resources (lecture notes, past exams, readings, etc.) the student would use
  • How each resource would be useful, and how exactly the student would use them

The result? These students reported feeling less stressed and more prepared. And they outperformed the other group by almost a third of a letter grade—the difference between a B+ and an A-.

Here’s a snippet from the article about the research:

“All too often, students just jump mindlessly into studying before they have even strategized what to use, without understanding why they are using each resource, and without planning out how they would use the resource to learn effectively,’ says Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford with a PhD. ‘I find this very unfortunate because it undermines their own potential to learn well and perform well.’”

The article also includes some good advice for parents on how to help kids learn this strategy for themselves.

If your grades could use a boost (or your stress level could use some relief), take 15 minutes before your next study session. The technique is free, and it’s available to you no matter what your GPA is.


There’s one type of person that groups, organizations, businesses, and yes, colleges can’t ever get enough of: self-starters.

There are tasks to get done, new things to try, problems to fix, and improvements to be made. Everyone else is missing them, otherwise they’d be happening now. What a great opportunity.

No audition, application, nomination, election, or admission necessary. All you need is a willingness to step up and (self) start.