Sometimes it’s good to hurry

Sometimes the best way to stop stalling, deliberating, second-guessing or looking for the perfect choice is just to hurry up.  Rush things.  Make an artificial deadline.  Do it now.  

If your club needs to do a fundraiser, you could spend your entire meeting letting everyone make suggestions of what to do and still not have a decision at the end of it.  Or you split people up into groups and say, "Everyone has 15 minutes to come up with as many fundraising ideas as possible. We'll pick one before the meeting is over.  Go."

If you've got a snow day off from school, you could pretend that the project you have due next week is actually due tomorrow.  Jump in and do it.

Last month, my colleague Arun and I imagined how much we'd enjoy doing our college essay workshop at the annual NACAC conference, especially if we could recruit two particular admissions officers that we really admire to join us.  But we had that bright idea just 24 hours before the deadline to propose sessions.

That 24-hour looming deadline removed all of the opportunities to come up with excuses why we couldn't do it.  There was no time for writer's block or procrastination.  Arun went to work recruiting, I went to work writing, and 24 hours later, we proposed our dream session–with our dream team–to NACAC.

No idea if the the proposal will be accepted.  But the point is that we went from having a big idea to actually being done in just 24 hours, something we might never have pulled off if we didn't have to hurry. 

Being deliberate is a good thing.  But every now and then, it's good to hurry.

The FAFSA isn’t all that’s required for financial aid

Most colleges' deadlines to apply for financial aid will be in approximately the next month.  And every college bound senior who wants to be considered for financial aid should fill out the FAFSA.  In fact, if you haven't submitted it yet, you should do that as soon as possible.

But the FAFSA gets so much air time as the crucial first step in applying for aid that some families overlook other forms colleges can require in addition to the FAFSA, namely, the CSS Profile and the colleges' own, separate forms. 

Senior families, there is only one guaranteed, mistake-free way to make sure you file the correct forms–visit the financial aid section of each college's website and verify what they require.  That's your first step. 

Even colleges that share the Common Application for admission can have entirely different requirements to apply for financial aid.  Don't rely on word-of-mouth.  Don't even rely on a college guidebook.  Visit the sites individually and print up the pages that list the financial aid application requirements for each.

You can find even more advice in our “Financial Aid and Scholarships” video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download. 

For private counselors: Sometimes it’s best to breakup

One of the hardest facts to accept as a business owner is that some people are predisposed to be unhappy, no matter what you do for them.  There is no scenario where you delight those customers, where they sing your praises and refer their friends.  So you spend all your time trying to change a professional relationship that's never going to be rewarding for either party.  When that happens, sometimes it's best to breakup. 

Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, understood this.  Southwest will respond to every letter they receive from a customer, but when Herb got the sense that Southwest and a particularly irascible customer just weren't right for each other, he broke up. 

From page 270 of Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.


One woman who frequently flew on Southwest was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.  She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.  And she hated peanuts!  Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.'"

Yes, you should work like crazy to make your customers happy.  But you'll be a happier, more successful business owner if you're attracting the type of customer who's most likely to be delighted by what you do. 

And if you get the sense that you and a particular customer are never going to have a good relationship no matter what you do, it's best for both of you to break it off and have the opportunity for both of you to find someone else who's a better match. 

On texting while you work

Seth Godin has a great post today about why you shouldn't text while working.  He's directing it at the professional world, but if you're a high school student who wants to go to college, I think it applies to you, too.  


You're competing against people in a state of flow, people who are truly committed, people who care deeply about the outcome. You can't merely wing it and expect to keep up with them. Setting aside all the safety valves and pleasant distractions is the first way to send yourself the message that you're playing for keeps."

Five questions colleges ask

Many colleges ask applicants:

  1. "Which of your activities has had the most meaning for you, and why?"
  2. "Why have you decided to apply to our college?"
  3. "Have you thought about what you might like to study in college?"
  4. "What's your favorite subject/class/teacher?"
  5. "How will you contribute to our campus community?"

How would you answer those if you were applying today?  And what could you do between now and the fall of your senior year to give you even more to say?

Five second semester reminders for juniors

For the college-bound, the second semester of 11th grade is arguably your most important semester.  Here are five tips to help you make it count. 

1.  Take the SAT or ACT at least once.

Leave the fall of senior year to re-take a test if necessary, but not to take it for the first time. 

2.  If you're ever going to get the best GPA of your life, this is the semester to do it. 

If you're legitimately working as hard as you can in school, good job.  But if you haven't done as well in the past as you could have, here is your chance to show colleges that you're getting better with age.  If you need them, here are five things you can start doing tomorrow that will get you better grades.

3.  Pick one or two classes where you believe you can give a great performance and then deliver it. 

That will give teachers good stories to tell in letters of recommendation.

4.  Evaluate your activities and make sure you're actually enjoying them. 

Colleges are going to ask you what your most meaningful activities were.  If you're doing things just because you think you should, that doesn't lead to good answers (or to a fulfilling life outside of class).  You might even consider quitting an activity and that's not fulfilling and replacing that time with something you want to do. 

5.  Keep college admissions in perspective. 

There's nothing wrong with hard work and even an occasional late night.  But it's important to remember that applying and getting accepted to college shouldn't feel like being locked in a life and death struggle.  Some people are going to treat it that way, but please don't be one of them.  I would challenge anyone to find a smart, motivated kid whose life was forever damaged because his dream school said, "No."  Work hard, be nice to other people, and get more excited about the opportunity to attend college than you do about one particular school.  I promise you'll be fine.

One college planning guarantee

I spoke at a middle school last night and a parent asked me about my preference between AP and IB programs.

I told her the truth–that the IB program is great for some kids, but that it's not a magic key that unlocks the doors of admission to selective colleges.  Intellectual kids who challenge themselves in honors and AP courses have the same opportunities that those in the IB programs do.  The important thing is to pick an academic program that fits the student.

I could tell it wasn't the answer she wanted when she retorted, 

"Students in IB programs are accepted to college at double the rate of students in other programs.  I've seen the data."

I don't know what data she's seen (it's probably from a local high school who's pitching the program to prospective parents).  But I do know two things:

1)  If that data really does exist, it says less about the IB program and more about the kids in it.  Kids who end up in an IB program in the first place are, not surprisingly, the type of students who are likely to go to college.

2)  Wanting to believe it doesn't make it so.

That mother is worried about picking the right high school for her son, and it would be so much easier if she could be assured that the IB program was going to give him all the advantages she wants for him.  It would put her at ease to have an IB guarantee. 

Like just about everything important in life, there are no guarantees in college admissions planning.  No college, high school, private counselor, tutor, test-prep course, academic program, activity, essay or alumni contact can promise to make specific college dreams come true.

But if you put smart kids in academic programs that excite them, encourage them to pursue activities they actually enjoy, and celebrate the process rather than just the outcome, you'll have happy, motivated kids with plenty college acceptances from which to choose.  Guaranteed.   

College counseling done the wrong way

One of our Collegewise families got a letter in the mail this week that started:

You and your student, Kevin, are scheduled to participate in an educational group presentation followed by a personal interview to help determine college admission and financial aid eligibility. 

Colleges are now identifying prospective students as early as the 9th grade for admissions and financial aid assistance.  Therefore you need to attend in order to receive assistance in making critical decisions that will arise in the next few months.  Kevin's future is too important not to attend. 

Kevin's interview will take place either Saturday, February 5 or Sunday, February 6, 2011.  These may be the only dates we have available for Kevin this school year, so call or log on to make your appointment today. 

We told them to toss it.  

I have no issue with a company doing a free workshop at the end of which they tell the audience more about their services.  We've done that, and there's nothing wrong with it. 

But you still have to be honest about who you are and what you're doing.  When you're not, you leave it open to interpretation.  If you try to interpret this letter, at worst, this is a huge scam and really no different than the "Help me move my fortune from Nigeria" email.  At best, it's a company that preys on fear ("…you need to attend in order to receive assistance in making critical decisions…"  "Kevin's future is too important not to attend") and is passing themselves off as something other than a for-profit business.

I'm sure the woman who signed her name to the letter would take issue what that.  But–no surprise–there is no email address or other contact information for her.  If you go to the company's website, you can't find any information about who's running the place.  You can't get a straight answer about what they do, who you work with if you hire them, or what the real agenda of this free workshop is.

Correction 1/27/11:  The website included in the letter was not the same as the their corporate site, which did include the information mentioned above.  But I had to find it by Googling the company's name.  If your marketing makes you feel the need to make it hard for people to figure out who you are, you need different marketing (or a different company).   

Parents and students, don't trust a private counselor, tutor or test prep company whose pitch makes you feel scared, guilty or inadequate.  There are plenty of those emotions going around already in college admissions, and the harder a company works to exacerbate them, the less likely they'll work hard enough to make you feel better when you hire them.

And to the private counselors out there, we have to be better than this.  We're in an unregulated industry with absolutely no barrier to entry.  There are plenty of good people doing what we do who want to help kids and do a good job.  The best thing we could do for families and for our industry is to be so undeniably good, so unquestionably committed to running fair and honest businesses that the differences between us and the people who send these letters will be obvious.

Writer’s block is sometimes just typer’s block

When we first started helping students with college essays, the first draft they'd send us often lacked the same emotion or energy that the student conveyed when he first told us the story in our brainstorming meeting.  The first draft didn't light up the way the student's face did when he was talking about playing the trombone or working at a daycare center or completing a physics project.  It wasn't surprising.  It's easier for most people to tell a story, one in which you don't have to edit yourself, than it is to sit down and actually write it line by line.

So we started writing down good "lines." 

When we brainstorm essays with a student, whenever she says something funny, emotional, or meaningful, we write it down (or better yet, we have the student write it down).  Sometimes a student will just use a great turn of phrase.  When that happens, we write it down.

That's how gems like this make their way into essays:

"Artistically, I peaked in kindergarten."  

"My mom is the only person I know who will get up at 5 a.m. to go buy a vase."

"I was in such a deep academic hole, I didn't think I'd ever get out.  I didn't even know how to start."

"Poker night has officially been cancelled because of me.  I'm that good."

"The guys on the team were really good to me.  They totally understood when I had to miss practices to take care of my mom."

"I absolutely hated Catcher in The Rye.  I loved my English class, but I hated that book." 

What we're doing is helping a student capture her best words as she says them.  Those sentences often become the best sentences in the essays.  And it's yet another step we take to make sure that the essay is the student's–her idea, her voice, and most importantly, her words.    

If you do any kind of writing at all, there are a lot of applications for this technique.  Here's an entry from the 37signals guys' blog they call "Writer's block is sometimes just typer's block" about how they made sure their emotional voice came through in their latest book.


“Everybody is doing it”

"Everybody's doing it" is rarely a good reason to do things, especially in high school.  And the way you prepare for college is no exception. 

If everybody else has tutors in four subjects and a year-long program to prepare for the SAT, it's easy to feel that you should do the same thing.

If everybody else is talking about "doing some community service for college apps," you might start to feel like you should find an easy, non-committal community service project where you can accrue some hours.

If everybody else is stressed, sleepless and waiting for an admission to a highly selective college to make the last three years of academic boot camp worth it, you might take on that same attitude.

If other parents talk incessantly about their connections at an Ivy League school who are "very influential" (those reportedly influential connections almost never are, by the way), you might feel like you're failing your own kid by not knowing the right people. 

If everybody else wants to go to the same 25 colleges, it's understandable why you'd start to believe that those must be the only 25 colleges worth attending.

But like virtually any action motivated by peer-pressure and the fact that "Everybody's doing it,"

1) Just because everybody is doing it doesn't make it a good idea.

2) You're almost always better off ignoring what everybody else is doing and instead making your own informed decisions.