What schools, businesses and organizations can learn from Southwest Airlines

Time Magazine ran a story today about a Southwest Airlines pilot delaying his departure of a full airplane so they could wait for a grandfather who was trying to get to his grandson's funeral.  The article points out that this was a courageous decision, as the pilot risked the wrath of angry travelers who might end up missing their connections at the next stop. But I didn't think his decision was all that surprising.  Not only was it the humane thing to do, but Southwest Airlines doesn't let corporate policy get in the way of doing the right thing. 

From page 289 of Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.


I can’t anticipate all of the situations that will arise at the stations across our system.  So what we tell our people is ‘Hey, we can’t anticipate all of these things.  You handle them the best way possible.  You make a judgment and use your discretion; we trust you’ll do the right thing.  If we think you’ve done something erroneous, we’ll let you know…without criticism, without backbiting.  We never jump on employees for leaning too far in the direction of the customer."

Herb Kelleher
Former CEO of Southwest Airlines 

That pilot knew that as long as he was doing what he thought was the right thing, Southwest Airlines would have his back.  That's the kind of place where people like to work.

Standardized testing plans for juniors

One of the most important college planning choices for juniors is deciding which standardized tests to take and when to take them.  Here are a few guidelines to help you.

First, for those of you who just got your PSAT scores returned, please read this post I wrote a year ago about what PSAT scores mean and why you should never stress over them.

All juniors should plan on taking either the SAT or ACT at least once this year.  Colleges accept either one of them, so a smart strategy is to figure out if you're better at one test or the other, then focus your test-prep efforts on your stronger test.  The Princeton Review offers a free practice test for both the SAT and the ACT.  Take both and see if you score higher on one test or the other.  But whatever you do, definitely don't prepare for both.  You want good test scores, but you don't want to spend one second more than necessary doing test preparation.  Pick one test and go with it.  

If you're planning to apply to more selective private colleges, you might need to take a few of the SAT Subject TestsCompass Education has put together a great resource for Subject Test requirements here.  But as they mention, there's really no replacement for visiting the websites of your chosen colleges and verifying their testing requirements.  If you find that some colleges you're considering require the Subject Tests, plan on taking those in May or June in the classes you'll just be completing (like US history or chemistry).

And finally, before you make a decision about how to prepare for the SAT or ACT (class, tutor, book, etc.), you might want to check out this post I wrote for parents about choosing test prep (as parents are usually integrally involved in that decision).

Summary for juniors:

1.  Visit the websites of any colleges you might be considering and review their testing requirements.  This is a good way to get an admissions context for the testing plans you're about to make.

2.  Don't panic over your PSAT scores.  Just use them to help you make good testing decisions.

3.  Determine if you're a stronger SAT or ACT test-taker, and make that your test of choice.

4.  Prepare for, and take, either the SAT or ACT at least once this year.

5.  Consider taking the SAT Subject tests if any colleges you're considering require them.

There's no such thing as one perfect testing schedule (we spend almost an entire meeting with our Collegewise students planning their testing calendar), but if you use these guidelines and verify your choices with your high school counselor, you'll be in good testing shape at the end of this year.

What should you wear to your college interview?

We get the "What should I wear to my college interview?" question a lot from our Collegewise students.  Here's what we tell them.

Imagine your parents were making you dress up for Thanksgiving dinner at your grandparents' house.  What would you wear?  A t-shirt and jeans is too casual.  A full suit or formal dress is too much.  Anything in between those two will probably be fine as long as you use good judgment.

That's a good rule of thumb for your college interview attire.   

On the one hand, you need to show the interviewer that you appreciate the importance of this meeting.  Making an effort to look nice conveys that.  A college interviewer once told us that a student showed up to meet her wearing yoga pants and looking like she'd just come from the gym.  No good.

On the other extreme, if you dress up so formally that you feel awkward and uncomfortable, you're going to ooze tension during the interview.  It's never going to make you look bad to be the best dressed person in the room.  But if it affects your ability to relax and be yourself, it's just not worth it.  

And remember, you're not dressing up for a date here.  It's fine to be fashionable, but you don't want your outfit (or an overwhelming application of perfume or cologne), to speak for you. Wear something that would make your grandma say, "You look nice, dear."

You can find even more advice in our "College Interviews" video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.


How I wish colleges would do tours

Touring colleges is an important part of any student’s college search.  It’s just too bad so many colleges’ tours are so ineffective.

Here’s your typical college tour.  Parents and students are led around the campus by a polished, rehearsed student who tells them that the library has two million volumes, the average class size is surprisingly small, and students can study abroad.  Tour ten colleges, and I promise you that at least nine of them will say those three things.  So while students still get to see the campus and breathe in the atmosphere, the only real insight they pick up from the tour is whether or not they liked their tour guide.

Given that so many colleges seem alike to the college researcher, I think schools are missing a huge opportunity to stand out and make a memorable impression on the students who are most likely to apply and later enroll.

If I ran tours at a college, here’s what I’d do.

1.  Understand that your job isn’t to sell the school to the group.  It’s to help the visitors make good decisions about whether or not your school might be a good fit.

2.  Accept that you’re not for everybody.  Once you do that, it will make it easier to do #1.

3.  Let the tour guides design the tour based on what they think students would want to see and learn about. If your ten tour guides do ten slightly different tours, that’s good.  No cookie cutter tours.  Sure, they’d have to get their versions approved.  But if you’re terrified that your tour guides would say something inappropriate, you either need new tour guides or you need to start trusting the ones you’ve already got.

4.  At the end of the tour, separate the students and parents.  Let the students go to a room staffed by five undergrads who take their questions for the next 30 minutes.  And here’s the important part.  Empower those five staffers to tell the truth.  Have them say to students,

“Our job isn’t to sell you on our school; it’s to help you make the best decision for you about whether or not you might enjoy spending four years here.  So for the next 30 minutes, you can ask us any questions you want to, and we’ll answer them honestly.  We won’t be telling our bosses or your parents what you ask us.  This will probably be your only chance throughout your college search to get honest answers from someone at a college who isn’t trying to sell you anything, and we hope you’ll take us up on it.”

Do the same thing with parents, but make the panel a mix of faculty and staff.  You could have two professors, an academic advisor, a counselor from the health center and someone from the housing office.  Bonus points if the panelists have their own kids in college (any college).

5.  Have the visitors fill out evaluations of their visit.  And I don’t mean long forms where they have to choose  statements like “strongly agree” or rate the tour from 1 to 5.   Just come out and ask them what they liked most, what they liked least, and give them space to write.  Add a space at the end where they can ask a question that wasn’t covered on the tour, and invite them to leave their email address if they’d like it answered.  Have the tour guides reply with answers within 24 hours.

It wouldn’t be easy.  It would take guts to make the change.  But imagine the impression you’d make.

And more importantly, don’t you owe it to your prospective students?

Why paying for college is like buying a gym membership

Paying for college isn't like paying for a car or a house. It's easy to research cars and houses to the point that you really do know exactly what you're getting.  Have a mechanic look over the car before you buy it.  Get the house inspected.  Read what Consumer Reports says about the car.  Research the schools in the house's neighborhood.  Sure, there can be unforeseen surprises.  But in most cases, you know what to expect once you buy it. 

Colleges can't be measured like that because there's a gigantic unknown in the equation–the student.

You can pay top dollar for a private college that offers small classes, personal attention from professors and the most supportive, encouraging environment you can find.  Still, your kid has to take advantage of all those opportunities for it to mean anything.  You can send your kid to the cheapest public school in your state that has huge classes, and professors who care more about their research than they do their teaching.  If your student commits to extracting the maximum value from her four years there, she'll probably get a great education.  

Choosing a college is a lot like buying a gym membership.  If you enroll in the nicest gym in town but don't utilizes all the classes and trainers (or if you just don't go at all), the guy who works out every day with old dumbbells in his garage will be in much better shape than you will be.   

I think colleges can and should be rigorously evaluated.  But they can't be measured or ranked.  You can't research your way to a college that guarantees future success.  The student is the X-factor in any college decision. 

So when you're trying to decide whether or not a particular college is worth the investment, don't forget to evaluate your student, too.

Answers to your questions about financial aid for college

Are 529 plans really worth it?  Why should a family bother filling out the FAFSA if you know you won't qualify?  What colleges have "no loans" policies where any financial aid offered is always a grant, not a loan that needs to be paid back?

Mark Kantrowitz is a financial aid expert, author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and the founder of both finaid.org and fastweb.com which are two of the very best–and FREE–sources of information for financial aid and scholarships.

This week he's been doing a three-part series on "The Choice" blog answering readers' questions about financial aid.  The questions they chose are some of the most commonly asked, and the answers are detailed and helpful.  It's worth taking a look if you're concerned at all about your family's ability to pay for college.  Here are the links for part I, part II and part III


Seniors, do your colleges require 7th semester transcripts?

Seniors who've applied to college, now that you're about to finish the first semester of your senior year, it's time to double check the application requirements for your colleges and see which ones require:

1)  An official copy of your transcript with the grades from this semester (your "7th semester").


2)  A mid-year report from your counselor.  A mid-year report is a form from the application that your counselor fills out and sends to the college, usually with a copy of your transcript.

Remember, it's not a college's, your parents' or your counselor's job to remind you to do this.  It's your application and your college future–it's your job. Go back to the websites of each of your colleges, look up the application requirements, and see if you need to send either of these items.

A new way for teens to stand out

14 year-old Allison Miller sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month (and no, this is not the "new way to stand out" that I'm suggesting).  While she may the exception, the article goes on to describe just how many digital interruptions teenagers face today, and how the constant need to multi-task is affecting their work.

I see a huge opportunity for teens here, one that if you capitalized on could give you a real college admissions advantage.  If you'd be willing to turn off the interruptions regularly, you could become a teen who can get a lot of great work done in a short period of time.  Not many teens can do that today. 

What if you became the only one of your friends who turned off your phone and internet for however long it took for you to get your work done every day?  How much less time would it take to study and do your homework?  How much better would your work be?  How much more time would you have for doing other things while other teens are busy being interrupted?

20 years go, you wouldn't stand out just because you could get a lot of work done in a short period of time.  But that's all changed, and I think the smart teens will take advantage of it.

Don’t abandon your ambition–redefine it.

Does being an ambitious student mean you have to make yourself miserable to achieve your goals?  I don’t think it does, and neither does Cal Newport.

Cal’s latest blog post about college admissions argues that ambition is a good thing; if you work hard and stand out, you’ll have more interesting opportunities (colleges, jobs, promotions, etc.).  But if your workload leaves you stressed, sleep-deprived and miserable, you’re going to miss out on a lot of those great opportunities.  This is the mistake a lot of high school students make.  Their attitude is that if they can just survive their brutal workload and get accepted to their dream school, they'll be set for life.  This survivalist mindset is short-sighted and unsustainable.  The happiest and most successful students are the ones who find a way to pursue their ambitions without sacrificing their happiness. 

There are lots of ways to find and maintain that balance (both my blog and Cal’s give you lots of suggestions for how to do it).  But Cal’s most important assertion here is that high school and the college admissions process are the perfect time for students to learn this valuable skill of finding and achieving balance in their lives. 

He’s not arguing that you abandon your ambitions and neither am I.  He’s just arguing that some students should consider redefining them. 

Why we don’t like career tests

We often have prospective Collegewise families ask us if we do any career testing as part of our program.  That's an easy one.  No.

I understand why they ask.  But if you're looking for college counseling advice based on what a test says your kid's career aptitude is, we're not the right college counselors for you.

Have you ever met a single successful adult who discovered their path because of a career test they took when they were seventeen?  I haven't. 

The truly great counselors we've known would never put much stock in a career test for teens.  We don't think most teenagers are supposed to know what they want to do with their lives yet. And we don't like to see kids making important decisions based on the results of a blunt, one-size fits all, instrument.

Picking a college is an important and potentially expensive decision.  So it's smart for kids to ask themselves if they have any idea what they might want to do with their lives before they decide where to apply.  And if a teen really does have a future career in mind, that should probably be one of many criteria they consider when picking colleges. 

But for most kids, their path to a future successful career probably won't be a straight line.  And we think that's OK.  No need to carve a premature path because of a what a standardized tests tells you to do.