Insight from a different kind of dean

Randy Nelson is the Dean of Pixar University, the education and training division of Pixar.  Pixar is the animation studio that created the Toy Story series, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Ratatouille.  Their CEO went to the University of Utah, by the way, not an Ivy League school.  But that's for another blog post.

Nelson had this to say about what they look for in a new hire.


Mastery in anything is a really good predictor of mastery in the thing you want done.  If you take a young person who’s the best skateboarder, or the best glassblower, or is really good at playing spoons, you’re going to find something about that personality—if they are truly a master—that has set their mind in a way that you can use in your enterprise whether you’re an educator, a business person or both.  That sense of, ‘I’m going to get to the top of that mountain’ separates them from all of the other applicants almost instantly.  There’s very little chance that someone’s going to achieve mastery on the job if they didn’t get there before coming to your workplace.”

College admissions officers tend to notice the same thing about applicants.

For example, you don't necessarily have to be the lead in the school play to impress a college.  You could become a master of stage lighting instead.  You could take a class over the summer to learn it.  You could study how the experts on Broadway do it.  You could read books, websites and blogs.  You could write your own blog about it.  You could talk at length about the best examples of stage lighting and the pros you've come to admire.  And you'd make your school's stage productions that much better. 

Even if you had no interest in studying drama or doing stage lighting at the college level, any admissions officer would be impressed by your desire to learn more and your drive to become a master.

Find something that interests you, something you really enjoy.  It won't feel like work when you dive in and try to master it.  Whether it's being the goalie on the lacrosse team, speaking Italian, playing the violin, flipping burgers at a hamburger stand, stamp collecting, rodeo, fashion design or tap dancing, your path to mastery will teach you a lot.  And it will make you more interesting to everyone, including colleges. 

Try this college admissions test

Here's a test I gave my audience at a high school's "college night" last week (parents and students both got to play).

1.  Write down the names of the three people you most admire.  You don't necessarily have to know them personally.  They just have to be real people.

2.  Describe why you admire them in 3-4 sentences each.

Now answer these two questions:

Did any of the people on your list go to a prestigious college (Google 'em if you have to)?

Did you mention any prestigious colleges in your descriptions about why you admired these people?

There were 41 attendees in the audience. The number of people who answered "Yes" to at least one of those questions? 


What were your results?


Join us for “How to Revive Lifeless College Applications”

Arun and I had a lot of fun doing our first episode of "College Admissions Live" (our experiment with online TV–you can watch the first episode about college essays here).  And while we did prove that we knew more about admissions than we did about good video quality, we're working on the latter and are excited to announce our next episode.

How to Revive Lifeless College Applications
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, November 3
Live @ 6 p.m. PST 
For free, at our online channel

What we'll cover
Even the most accomplished student can look dull when reduced to a dry listing of grades, test scores and activities. How can your college applications tell a compelling story of you and your high school career?  Join us to learn:

•    Why sharing fewer activities and awards can tell a college even more about you.

•    How successful applicants inject personality to make their applications memorable (without resorting to gimmicks).

•    Why resumes, extra letters of recommendation, and samples of your art or music sometimes hurt your chances more than they help.

We’ll talk for about 30 minutes, then take questions from the audience for 15 minutes.

How to watch
Just visit our channel on Wednesday, November 3rd at 6 p.m. PST. (What time is that in my time zone?)

No reservations required. Just drop in at the start time.  And if you'd like us to send you an email reminder the day of the show, just register here.

We hope you'll tune in to join us!


Will a college know if you lie on your application?

There is in fact such a thing as a stupid question.  "How could a college really know if you lied on your application?" is a good example of one.

The problem with that question isn't that the answer should be obvious.  It's a stupid question because lying to your colleges is a stupid thing to do.  And most students aren't posing the question hypothetically.  They're asking because they're considering telling the lie.

Colleges know how to spot inconsistencies in your application.  They notice when things you say don't match with what your teachers or counselors say in the letters of recommendation.  And colleges won't hesitate to call your counselor to verify information that doesn't seem right.  They don't do it to catch you in a lie.  They do it to make sure they have accurate information. 

So sure, it's possible that you could claim to be a National Merit finalist and the college would never know.  You could claim to have played two years of varsity soccer when you only played one, that you did 50 hours of community service you didn't really do, or that you've never been suspended from school when, in fact, you were suspended once as a freshman.  A college might never find out. 

But the real question is, is it worth the risk?

If you lie on your college application and a college finds out–no matter what the lie is or how they find out–that's it.  You're not getting in.  And it wouldn't be unheard of for colleges to tell your other colleges what you did.  Colleges know that kids who are willing to take that risk are more likely to do things like cheat on a test or plagiarize a paper.  So the risk dramatically outweighs any potential reward.  And when you sign your college application, you're signing a formal document stating that all of the information is true to the best of your knowledge.  So if you get caught, forget it.  There will be no apologizing your way out of it.

Nice, confident kids who've worked hard don't ask us this question.  So don't let the pressure of college admissions influence you to lie on your college application.  Be better than that.  It's not worth it.  You don't need an admission to Princeton or NYU or UCLA badly enough to lie.  Just be honest.  Be proud of who you are and what you've done.  If you've made mistakes, be mature enough to own up to them.

It's hard not to like and respect people who have the guts to tell the truth. 

Good press doesn’t necessarily mean good advice

Which article about college interviews would you be more likely to read?

Option 1:  "College deans advise: Just relax and have a good conversation." 


Option 2:  "College deans advise:  Girls, don't show your cleavage.  Boys, don't scratch yourselves." 

Today, The New York Times chose option 2.

Today's entry on The Choice, a blog I usually enjoy and often recommend, led with the entry, "Advice for the College Interview: Girls, Dress Discreetly; Boys, Mind Those Hands."  Turns out there's very little useful advice other than don't text during the interview, don't burst into song, and don't talk about how much you like to light things on fire.  Seriously.  They might as well have just entitled the article, "College deans advise: don't be rude, stupid or dangerous."

Sure, it's accurate advice.  But most teens don't need the New York Times to remind them not to scratch themselves during their college interviews.

The job of the press is to entice readers and sell papers.  That's why every spring, there will be another round of front page articles about the rising competition of Ivy League admissions.  There will be stories about seemingly perfect kids who were rejected from all their colleges.  There will stats about rising wait-list numbers, decreasing financial aid, and families who are spending tens of thousands of dollars for tutors and private admissions counselors.

It's important to remember that just because these stories end up on the front page doesn't mean they encapsulate the reality of college admissions.  It's just that "Nice kids who work hard always end up OK" will never sell as many papers as "Valedictorian with perfect SAT scores now living in parents' basement after receiving rejections from 12 out of 12 colleges." 

The press isn't being deceitful here–they're just doing their job.  But if you want college admissions reality, rely your high school counselor or a college admissions officer before you rely on the front page.   

PS: In the spirit of always talking about other people as though they were there in the room with you, I submitted this comment to "The Choice."

How one graduate from a not-so-famous college made it big

Jon Favreau was just a twenty six year-old kid when he wrote President Obama’s inauguration address (he did it on his laptop at Starbucks).  Today, he’s not even thirty and he’s the Chief White House speechwriter.  Time Magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  I don’t care what your politics are—most people would agree that this guy is pretty successful.   When asked how he got here, Favreau once told an interviewer,

“It all started because of Holy Cross.”

College of the Holy Cross isn’t on my list of the 40 colleges in the country where all the bad admissions news is true.  About 65% of their students were ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes; 95% of Princeton’s students can make that claim.  Holy Cross admits almost half of the students who apply; Stanford admits 9 out of every 100. 

But if there’s ever been someone who’s proven that it’s not where you go to college, it’s what you do while you’re there, John Favreau’s your guy.

Back in college, “Favs” as his friends call him studied political science. He volunteered at the local welfare office and started a project defending the rights of welfare recipients.  He was the editor of the opinion section of the school newspaper.  Then he took advantage of Holy Cross’s “Washington Semester” where he moved to Washington DC and interned for Senator John Kerry.  His junior year, he was named a Harry S. Truman Scholar, winning a $30,000 scholarship awarded to 75 students nationwide each year who have extensive records of public and community service and are committed to careers in public service.  He was named valedictorian of his graduating class and showed everyone in attendance that he had speechwriting chops in his address that closed with:


There seems to be one last bulletin here that Career Planning forgot to drop in our mailboxes.  Now, I realize that most of us already have jobs, but all of these positions are part time, and I’m sure all of us have the necessary qualifications. The employers are our communities, and while each position is already being filled by millions all over the world, there is a desperate need for more help. And here’s some of what we need:

Soccer coaches, Den Mothers, PTA members, Neighbors who help you move in and promise to keep in touch when they move you out, Friends who come early and stay late, Shoulders to cry on, Big Brothers and Sisters, Family comedians, Tee Ball Umpires, Letter-to-the-Editor authors, Voters who care about any issue from Traffic Lights and Tax Reform to Potholes and Peace on Earth, Organizers and Activists, Critics and Supporters, Voices for those who are having trouble getting theirs heard, Summertime Porch-Sitters with special degrees in talking about everything and nothing until the mosquitoes bite, Mentors, Philanthropists, Signature collectors, Boo-boo fixers, Grocers to the hungry, Roofers to the homeless, and Believers—especially believers.”

A few years later when then-Senator Barack Obama interviewed Favreau to join his office as a speechwriter, Obama asked him how he got started in politics and what originally got him interested.

Favreau told him about the welfare office where he volunteered back in college.  At the end of the interview, Obama hired him on the spot. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to go to a famous college to be successful.  It’s what you do while you’re there, not where you go, that matters. 

A word of advice for early decision applicants

Imagine you meet your boyfriend or girlfriend for a dinner date on Friday night and instead of sitting down to eat, you're met with the words, "I'm sorry, but I want to break up."  Ooof.

You'd be hurt, probably surprised, and would likely head home for a weekend of mourning. 

Now imagine that when you got home, you remembered that you have a huge research project due on Monday and you haven't even started.  What would that feel like, having to throw yourself into an important project immediately after your breakup?  Could you do a good job when your head and heart just aren't in it?  Would it make your post-break up pain even worse? 

That's how a lot of students who are applying early decision to colleges are going to feel in December.

Early decision deadlines (the binding admissions program in which you promise to attend a college if they accept you), are quickly approaching.   In return for applying early, you'll hear back from those colleges in early December.  A lot of students apply to one of those schools and then wait with their fingers crossed, leaving all of their other college applications to wait until they get the news back from their dream school.  That's a fantastic system if you get an acceptance from that one school.  But if you don't…

1.  You now have to start all of your other college applications.

2.  You'll only have a few weeks to do them, and you'll be working all through your holiday break.

3.  You'll have to muster the enthusiasm to put all the necessary love and attention into these remaining college applications, all while nursing the emotional hangover from the dream school that rejected you.

Don't do it to yourself.  Plan for the worst.  Work on and complete all of your college applications. If your dream school says "No," you'll be able to take some solace in the fact that at least your other applications have already been submitted.  It will be like having a date with a new person already lined up before your significant other breaks up with you.  OK, maybe that's not good relationship advice, but with your college applications, it's just good planning.

Yes, if your dream school admits you, you'll have completely wasted your time on those other applications.  But which problem would you rather have?

What should parents’ expectations be for their high school students?

The stress of college admissions leaves a lot of parents rewarding or punishing kids for all the wrong reasons.

Two days ago, I shared the link to "A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps," an entry on the New York Times "The Choice" blog from a father who'd realized his son didn't have to go to an Ivy League school to make him proud. 

Today, that blog ran a selection of readers' comments, many from parents, they've received in response to the entry.  A lot of them were positive affirmations from parents who'd learned that their kids' GPAs and test scores didn't measure their worth as kids (or their parents' success at raising them).  But a few were like this one:


Ugh. Attitudes like this are part of the problem. Your kid can be a unique snowflake and still get good grades. Kids are failing in school and at life because parents are lowering their expectations.  This P.C. acceptance … is tiresome & fake. There is nothing wrong with expecting your kid to get all As, take honors and AP courses, top scores on SAT, and get into a top school. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed if your kid fails to accomplish these goals. It is your failure as a parent, too.  Stop pretending you need to just accept your kid as is when s/he fails. Your kid can be an individual & still get top marks in school.

Parents, that is not someone you want at your next dinner party.

First, it's important to acknowledge that there are some kids who could do nothing but study and still not get straight A's in AP classes.  There are some kids on whom you could spend a fortune for SAT tutors and they'd still never come close to the average score of the Stanford admits.  Hard work can influence those things, but not every kid gets the genetic hand of cards to achieve those admissions-related results.

But more importantly, when did it become reasonable to expect kids to be great at everything?  Do you know any adults who are great at everything?  Why should we expect kids to be great at math, chemistry, English, Spanish, athletics, music, public speaking and leadership?  The admissions process at highly selective colleges rewards the tiny percentage of students who somehow found the natural ability and work-ethic to achieve exceptional results.  If any kid could do it based on hard work and high expectations alone, every high school senior class would have 75 valedictorians.  

I'm not suggesting you should lavish praise on your student in every situation.  If your student gets a D on his chemistry midterm because he blew off studying and just played video games until 2 a.m., I think a parent has a right to be disappointed. I think it would be appropriate to take away his video game privileges and tell him you weren't happy with his effort.  It's OK to expect more than that from your student.  

But if that same student tried his best and still didn't do well on the exam, praise the effort.  Tell him you're proud of how hard he worked, and ask if there's anything you can do to help.  High expectations for your kid are absolutely a good thing.  But the expectations should be tied to the effort rather than the outcome.

Let your kids know that you expect them to put in a real effort to learn not because that's what it takes to get into Yale, but because education is important.  Encourage their interests not because you heard Georgetown likes students who've shown leadership, but so you can help them find their natural talents and passions.  Focus on the bigger picture. 

There are only eight Ivy League schools, but there are hundreds and hundreds of different paths someone can take to be happy and successful.  

Great college applications are sticky

A great college application is one that makes you stand out from all the other applicants.  The admissions officer remembers it when it's time to discuss who to admit.  In fact, a great college application is sticky.

I just finished reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The authors, professors of business at Stanford and Duke, define a "sticky" idea as one that people understand and remember, one that changes the way people think or act.  That story about the guy who goes to Vegas and wakes up in a tub full of ice to find that someone has harvested one his kidneys?  It's fake and it's ridiculous.  But it's sticky–people heard it, remembered it and shared it with all of their friends.

They share six principles you can use to make your idea sticky–whether you're doing a sales presentation, writing an article or hunting for a job.  And it struck me how aligned they are with the tips we give our Collegewise students when they're filling out their college applications. 

1.  Simple

A idea is more likely to stick when you make it simple.  You do that by weeding out everything that's unimportant and focusing on the core.  Take the activities section of a college application.  An admissions officer can't remember ten activities that you've participated in.  So don't list JV golf if you only played it for one year back in 9th grade.  If it wasn't important to you, why would it be important to an admissions officer? Use the limited space you have to focus on the few activities that really meant something to you and defined your high school experience.

2.  Unexpected

If you want someone to care about your idea, you have to pique their curiosity.  When someone wants to know something and doesn't, it's like an itch that needs to be scratched.  Starting your college essay, "I have been in the marching band for the last four years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment" is not going to pique any admissions officer's curiosity.  You might as well have just said, "I'm going to tell you a story you've already read over and over again."  But if that same kid started his essay,

"The first time I picked up a saxophone, I actually injured myself.  Really, my mother had to take me to the doctor." 

Now, you've piqued my curiosity.  

3.  Concrete

A sticky idea isn't abstract–it's tangible, something that someone can easily understand and see for themselves. A lot of activities, honors or awards aren't recognizable to an admissions officer.  Listing the "Triton Award" isn't concrete.  Nobody knows what that is.  Tell them that it's awarded to only one student in the junior class each year and that the faculty selects the winner.  Now your reader gets it.

4.  Credible

No idea is going to stick unless someone believes you.  So don't tell a college that you're very interested in science; tell them a story about what it's like to spend two hours looking through a microscope.   Don't tell them you learned how to be a leader in student government.  Share a story about what that one meeting was like when nobody would listen to you.  And don't tell a college they're high on your list because of the "great reputation" and "small faculty-to-student ratio."  Anybody can rely on generalities or recite statistics from the website.  You have to make them believe you.

5.  Emotion

A sticky idea makes someone feel something.  So don't write your essays in a stiff, academic tone.  Come right out and say, "My parents really stuck it to me by not giving me a science gene."  Or "I love it when we're at our busiest, when I'm behind the grill and everyone is running around in hamburger pandemonium."  Or, "I'm not sure my dad understands how much it meant to me that he left work early that day to come watch me play."   When I read those sentences, I feel something.  Put your emotions into your stories, and you'll make your reader feel something, too.

6.  Story

We tell our Collegewise students that details in your college essays help you take ownership of your stories.  But more importantly, they make your reader feel like he or she was there with you.  They understand a little more about you because they feel like they've been a part of something important to you.  The stickiest ideas aren't just facts–they tell stories that people remember.  Just like great teachers tell stories to help explain the material. you need to tell stories to explain you.

You're not like every other applicant–so use your application as a tool to help them understand what makes you different.  Be yourself.  Tell stories.  Share what you're proud of and admit what you aren't good at.  Be confident and self-aware.  That's how you create an application that sticks. 

Sometimes a parent just needs to hear it from a fellow parent

It's one thing for me to tell parents to relax, enjoy the ride, and stop worrying about whether or not your kid will get into an Ivy League school.  But I'm sure it resonates better when a fellow parent, especially one of a college applicant, can offer up some reassurance and advice. 

From the New York Times "The Choice" blog today:


Above all, I urge parents of high school juniors and seniors not to see their kids as SAT and ACT scores and G.P.A.s, but as creative, unpredictable, unprogrammable teenagers with their own gifts."

Dave Marcus
A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps