Beginning anew

One of the best things about New Year’s Day is the feeling of renewal. It’s a fresh start, a year full of possibility, a chance to press the reset button and really do things right. Let the New Year’s Resolutions begin.

A new school year is a similar opportunity, for both students and parents.

The school year has a definitive beginning and end. It begins with a transition and ends with another one, a nine-month cycle with a beginning, much like the start of the calendar year, that is the perfect opportunity to start anew.

Nine months from now, what would you like to be able to say about this school year? What would make you feel happy, proud, successful, etc.?

Parents, same question. In your role as the parent of a teenager who also plans to attend college, what would you like to be able to say about the way you played that role this year? What would make you feel proud? But careful not to choose a goal that’s tied to your student’s achievement. “Help my teen improve her grades this year” is about your student. “Focus more on my daughter’s effort than I do on the outcomes” is a goal about you.

No school year ever goes perfectly for everyone involved. But you can make conscious choices to do more of what worked for you last year, and less of what did not.

The beginning of a new school year is the perfect time to begin anew.

It was 20 years ago today…

It’s a day of nostalgia and excitement for me, as it was exactly 20 years ago that I officially started a little business called Collegewise. I knew I had the knowledge to help families make more informed college planning decisions, but that’s as far as the vision went at the time. The birth of Collegewise was really just the official filing of the DBA (“Doing Business As”) paperwork with the County Clerk’s office so that I wouldn’t be violating any city ordinances if someone actually paid me to help them. Three days later, I had my first official meeting with a family. I drove to their house to meet in their living room as I did for most of my meetings during the first year of business. The computer I’d ordered was still en route, so I wrote and printed their enrollment contract at Kinko’s that same morning. At the time, my little business was a start-up in every sense.

What an exciting, fulfilling, life-changing journey the 20 years since that day have been.

As this 20-year mark approached, I’ve enjoyed reminiscing, traveling back in my mind to the smaller milestones along the way that meant so much at the time. Our first student to receive a college acceptance. Our first office. The first employee who agreed to join me. Our first counselor training. Our first invitation to speak at a conference. Our first company holiday party, website, newsletter, additional location, and the first blog entry—each felt so big at the time, and each is now a small but special chapter in the 20-year tale.

Publishing our first book. Selling Collegewise to Princeton Review. Buying it back two years later. Our first appearances on major network news. Expanding across the country and the world. As Collegewise got bigger, as we kept filling our ranks with idiosyncratic miracle workers who shared their personal brand of best work with us, our collective successes seemed to grow, too.

Like any part of life’s journey, not all of the memories are happy ones. The two weeks in August 2005 when our building’s management refused to fix the air conditioner and our office turned into a sauna. The time a beloved co-worker decided it was time to move on. The 2009 recession when we almost lost everything we’d worked so hard to build. Stress, sleepless nights, doubts—they’ve all crept in at different points. No business, family, or college is perfect.

But 20 years later, when I look at everything that matters most to me in my life, almost all of it connects to Collegewise in some way. Many of my closest friends have come up through the Collegewise ranks. My mentor who first encouraged me to become an independent college counselor works alongside me here today. A co-worker even introduced me to the woman I’d one day marry and start a family with. When I look at our two sons and the life we share together today, I see the Collegewise roots in all of it. As much as I’ve given to Collegewise, it—and those who’ve joined us along the way—have always given even more back.

The Collegewise of today is so much more than just me embarking solo on an undefined adventure. Every day I come to work with colleagues who inspire me, who want to build the company they’d choose to hire (and work for), and who leave work every day a little better off than they found it. They bring so much care, attention, pride, generosity, and joy to their work, and they make life better for their customers, their co-workers, and their company. What a privilege to call this my job, and them my colleagues.

After 20 years, Collegewise is no longer a start-up; we’re a stay-up. And as is the case with any success, we didn’t get here alone. So to the customers who’ve trusted us, the co-workers who’ve shared your best work with us, the fans who’ve referred us, the friends and family members who’ve supported us, and everyone else who’s been part of this journey, thank you. Greatness is never built with mediocre parts, so however small or large your chapter in our 20-year story may be, I so appreciate the role you’ve played.

And happy 20th birthday to Collegewise, the company that’s changed so much for so many, especially me. I can’t wait to see what you have in store next.


Zingerman’s Deli is one of my favorite businesses, and yet I’ve never tasted one of their sandwiches. They’re highly profitable, with their community of businesses earning over $13 million in annual revenues. They’re consistently innovating, always looking for new ways to get better. They boast a fantastic culture with employees who care. They even write, speak, and teach prolifically to anyone who’s interested, including their competition. But none of it happens by accident. Everything is intentional.

Take their recent blog post, “How to give great customer service over the phone.” Plenty of businesses give lip service to customer service, expressing it via a banner that hangs on the wall. But Zingerman’s takes the time to envision what great service might look like. They codify, teach, and measure it. And they inculcate it into everything they do.

Can you imagine the pleasant service surprise for customers who call them? What message does that attention and care on the phone send about the food and service on the premises?

You don’t have to work in a deli, or speak with customers on the phone, to learn from Zingerman’s example.

Most people reading this are involved in things they care about. Family, work, a project, a team, an organization, an event, etc. Do you have a vision for what it could be? Have you thought about how you might bring that vision to fruition? And most importantly, are you laying the tracks, day by day—and doing so with intention—to get there?

Your vision paints a compelling destination. But you’ll need some intentionality to get where you’re hoping to go.

Investment initiative

I graduated with some impressive business experience considering I was a 22-year-old who’d yet to work a real full-time job.

In my four years of college, I’d recruited, interviewed, hired, managed, and on one occasion had to fire, employees. I’d drawn up marketing plans. I’d talked down angry customers. I’d written advertising copy, pitched ideas, created training programs, planned events, worked in teams, bounced back from failures, and done lots and lots of selling.

And yet, as an English and history major, I never took a single course related to business. I never had an off-campus internship, either. I just availed myself of the opportunities around me.

I volunteered as part of the staff for new student orientation and was hired to run the program during my senior year. I ran discussion groups as the TA for a course. I worked as a security guard at the library and as a conference planning assistant in the dorms one summer. And I ran a spectacularly unsuccessful new-member rush for my fraternity (it was the first time I learned that “This is how we’ve always done it” is not a compelling reason to do something).

I was nowhere near the most successful or involved person in my peer group, much less in the entire student community. My comparatively short list of involvements wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Some were even pedestrian. But baked into them were countless opportunities to lean in, to try new things, to take responsibility, and to fail. And best of all, they were available to any student on campus regardless of their area of interest.

As college costs and the associated student debt continue to rise, families are smartly starting to look more critically at the outcomes of college when compared to the cost. Investments are made based on the likelihood of a return, and it doesn’t make sense to pay that much for college only to cross your fingers and hope for the best after graduation.

But with some notable exceptions of programs built to combine applicable skills with job placement, it’s difficult for most colleges to promise (and to substantiate) an outcome at graduation, career-related or otherwise. A college can only present the opportunities, but the student is the x-factor.

It’s the student who gets to make the choice. You can view the boundless clubs, organizations, jobs, and other opportunities as a limited-time offer, one you must take advantage of before they disappear. Or you can view them as optional add-ons if and when the desire strikes.

The opportunities are there at every college, famous and otherwise. But you have to invest the initiative in pursuit of a successful return.

Supporter or boss?

This upcoming online session, “Homework and the Self-driven Child,” makes a compelling promise for parents:

“In this class, we’ll explore the importance of helping children develop a sense of agency and responsibility so that your role becomes a consultant and supporter, rather than a boss.”

I don’t have any affiliation with the class, but I have enjoyed the work of one of the instructors, William Stixrud (you can find past posts I’ve written about his work here, here, and here).

If you’re experiencing those challenges in your house and the course’s promises are compelling, it’s $37 and runs on August 22. All the information is here.

College essay writer’s block?

If you’ve tried attacking one or more of your college essay prompts, but ended up staring at a blank screen only to vow to return later, you’ve got college essay writer’s block. And here’s a sure way to cure it.

1. Imagine you were told: “Submit a response to the prompt in the next 15 minutes and you’ll win $10,000 in cash.”

2. Write like crazy for 15 minutes.

3. Repeat once a day for five days.

Guess what? You’ll either have a first draft you can work with, one or more ideas you can develop, or inspiration for a new and unexplored direction.

But you’ll no longer be writing-blocked.

Rested is resilient

Positive psychologists Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielen share this snippet in their recent Harvard Business Review piece, “Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure”:

“The misconception of resilience is often bred from an early age. Parents trying to teach their children resilience might celebrate a high school student staying up until 3AM to finish a science fair project. What a distortion of resilience! A resilient child is a well-rested one. When an exhausted student goes to school, he risks hurting everyone on the road with his impaired driving; he doesn’t have the cognitive resources to do well on his English test; he has lower self-control with his friends; and at home, he is moody with his parents. Overwork and exhaustion are the opposite of resilience. And the bad habits we learn when we’re young only magnify when we hit the workforce.”

And for any naysayers who dismiss that advice as leaving our kids unprepared for a competitive world, you might note that Achor and Gielen earned their graduate degrees from two of the most selective universities in the world, Harvard and UPenn respectively.

Is your story working?

Students, as you progress through high school, what stories are you telling yourself? This question is not the same as “What’s happened in your life in high school?” What actually happens is not always the same as the stories we tell ourselves.

If your coach decides to start the new transfer student in the spot that used to be yours, what story do you tell yourself?

One possible story is that it’s a miscarriage of justice, a tale of an opportunistic student who swooped in and stole—and a coach who heartlessly gave away—what was rightfully yours.

But you could also view that circumstance as one that’s actually good news. An unexpected source of talent just magically showed up. Sure, you’re disappointed not to start. But what a benefit to your team. What a boost to your chances of winning the league title you are hoping to claim. What an opportunity for you to play a different role as a supporter from the bench, to push yourself even harder in practice, to make you and other players better as you rise up to match the new position competition.

It’s one event, but two very different stories. And the one you decide to tell yourself makes all the difference.

I’m not suggesting that students or anyone else should ignore the realities of the world, especially the unpleasant ones. But there’s a difference between confronting brutal facts and creating demotivating stories.

Is it the situation, or the story you’re telling yourself about it, that’s not working?

Be the different one

I’ve never been a Star Trek fan. But I heard an interview yesterday morning that included an anecdote about Leonard Nimoy’s character, Mr. Spock, that resonated with me.

During one of the early episodes, the script called for seemingly every crewmember on the Starship Enterprise to panic about impending danger. But the director pulled Nimoy aside and told him, “Be the different one.”

So when every other character was losing their cool, Spock calmly reacted with just one simple word: “Fascinating.”

It became not only a recurring line, but also a central theme of his character.

Lots of families fixate on the colleges most likely to say no.
Lots of parents take over the process for their student.
Lots of students over-schedule themselves to the point of exhaustion.
Lots of families view the college admissions process like an anxious rite of passage.
Lots of parents turn their kids’ journey to college into a status competition.
Lots of students care more about getting the A than they do about learning.
Lots of families turn every conversation into one about getting into college.

Lots, lots, lots…

What would happen if you made the choice to be the different one?

Join me to learn how to write better college essays

I’ll be teaching a free college essay webinar in two weeks.

How to Craft Compelling, Cliché-Free College Essays
Wednesday, August 21 2019
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

All the details and registration information are here. I really enjoy speaking with students and parents about this topic, and I hope you’ll join me.