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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How far can a love of learning take you?

I've written often on this blog that the most successful students work hard because they love to learn, because they're passionate about what they do, not because they want to be admitted to a prestigious college.  They don't make college the reward.  College is the fortunate byproduct of their drive to know more and to make an impact.

Richard Feynman was a professor of physics at Caltech who won the Nobel Prize.  He worked on the atomic bomb and was a member of the team that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  And he also wrote a fantastic book about how the best scientists are driven not by the chance at fame or notoriety, but by the joy of learning something nobody else has known before.

Here's a short video of Feynman explaining that he doesn't care about awards, not even the Nobel Prize.  As he puts it, "I've already got the prize–the pleasure of finding the thing out."

What do you think he would have said to a kid who was taking calculus because "That's what Harvard wants"?

What do great college matches sound like?

We try to stay in touch with our former students so they can tell us about their lives in college.  Their responses always remind me of three things:

1.  The vast majority of college students are happy where they are.

2.  College guidebooks will never be able to capture a college like
the students who actually go there can.

3.  A lot of what makes college wonderful can't be measured or
predicted.  You have to get there and discover it for yourself. 

Thanks to the following former Collegewise students for giving us permission to share their stories. 

Medrano College is great!!   I have been involved in the Appalachia program
since the beginning of the year, which is a community service program
that takes students from Boston College to the Appalachia region during
spring break.  I will be spending my spring break in South Carolina
building houses, and getting involved with the community.  It is a great
way to give back, and meet other freshman students from Boston
College.  Football is big at Boston College and everyone is really into
supporting the football team.  Weekends at Boston College during the
fall are all about football.  Go BC!!!!!!!

Samantha M.

Boston College, Class of 2012


American College is the most thrilling experience of my life. There are days I never sleep, it requires a lot of work (but once you start taking classes in your major, you find a newfound energy to succeed), and I've met people I will never forget. Weekend afternoons are spent doing homework, or sitting in my friends' rooms listening to blues and jazz stations, as we sip black coffee over political discussions.  The city is great and full of things to do. On Halloween, walk down Massachusetts Ave. to Dupont Circle and trick or treat at the embassies. You'll probably step onto the grounds of 20 countries if you're lucky.

Alex H.
American University, Class of 2012

HolyCrossCollege has been so much fun!  My classes are SO great, even organic chemistry!  I'm taking a psychology class too and I love it so much, I think it may be my major.  All the professors are so smart and so helpful, each one of them is more than willing to help out in any way that they can. Holy Cross is such a tight community that I felt so welcome the moment I stepped on campus.  We decorate for Christmas, we have small personal retreats throughout the year, you get a handwritten card from your class dean on your birthday.  Things like that make me feel at home here.  I feel like at any other school I wouldn't have had nearly the same, personal experience as I have had at Holy Cross.

Christina G.
College of the Holy Cross, Class of 2012

SLO Cal Poly is an awesome, small townish, safe school.  I mean safe as in I've walked around at 10:30 at night and not felt the least bit uncomfortable.  It's really mellow here.  Everyone is laid back but hard working.   If you're looking for an engineering school, this is your best bet!

Jessica D.
Cal Poly  SLO, Class of 2012


CKatieollege has been the most amazing experience of my life so far. I joined a sorority, started writing for the school newspaper, and even spent this last year studying abroad in London and Athens.  I really feel like I have grown up in college, but the responsibility isn't something that weighs me down; it’s what I love about it. I couldn't wait to get out of high school, but I never want college to end!

Kate Sc.
Pepperdine, Class of 2010

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Final week of training for our new counselor

It's our last week of training for our new counselor here in Irvine. So as she prepares for her big final exam (and graduation dinner this week!), here are the last two sessions of training we completed with her.

Topics for Day 8: Collegewise Marketing
A lot of people think of marketing as running ads or handing out stress balls at conferences.   The marketing that we do at Collegewise is a little unusual in two ways.  1)  We take the majority of the money that we could have spent on traditional marketing and spend it to run a program that our customers will talk about.  2)  We’ve found that  the best way to market ourselves is to build an audience and teach something when we’re in front of them.  So in this session, we’ll discuss the various ways we make it easy for people to learn more about what we do, like referrals from other families, speeches at high schools, and writing our email newsletters and our blog.  Then we’ll talk more about the different programs that we offer, what is included in each, and how much they cost so that everyone can explain them to interested parties. 


•    How most businesses think of marketing
•    Out definition of marketing
•    Why marketing is not a department
•    The Five principles of Collegewise marketing   
•    Overview of the Collegewise Programs
Topics for Day 9: How to Do an Introductory Consultation
Nearly every family who enrolls at Collegewise first schedules a free, 30-minute introductory consultation.  We think this is the perfect way for families to meet the person they’d be working with and learn more about the program.  It’s also a chance for counselors to assess the fit and make sure that every family who enrolls is one who is likely to appreciate and benefit from what we do.   We don’t do sales presentations here, but we don’t just give away free advice either.  This session will teach you our system for running an introductory meeting that helps both the counselor and the family decide if it makes sense for us to work together. 

•    The difference between our introductory meetings and (slimy) sales presentations
•    What our introductory consultation is not
•    Your most important job in a consultation   
•    Steps to ensure a great meeting
•    Indications that the fit might not be good   
•    How to tell someone they might not be a good fit   
•    Common questions prospects might ask