On doing less

The 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall includes a memorable cameo by Paul Rudd as Kunu, a zany surf instructor who repeatedly dishes out just one instruction: “Do less.”

Wacky as the character may have been, there’s a lot of evidence that doing less is the key to success. It doesn’t work if you do nothing, but if you cut out the extraneous stuff and leave yourself with less to do, you focus your efforts on the work, people, and impact that matter most.

Here are a few past posts of mine, here, here, and here, that link to the research and writing on this topic.

Who needs a career plan?

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, participated on a panel in front of college students and was asked, “What should my 5-10-year career plan look like?”

She responded that a student shouldn’t have a 5-10-year career plan, and relayed that if she had followed a set career plan, she never would have ended up in tech because Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers when she graduated from college.

What should college students do instead?

Choose a first job based on how much you can learn, or that allows you to work with people you can learn the most from. That’s your goal—to learn as much as possible. The learning is what will help you discover your path and open up doors for your future.

For high school students, that approach—making the choice based on where you’ll learn the most—might not be a bad way to choose classes, activities, and even colleges.

This entire podcast is worth a listen, but the portion about Sandberg begins at 18:40.

Questions to (repeatedly) ask colleges

This February 2017 post from the Georgia Tech admissions blog about potential questions for students to ask colleges does two things I haven’t seen done well (or even at all) before:

1. The questions seek information students might actually want to learn about.
2. They recommend students ask the questions more than once to different audiences (students, tour guides, professors, etc.).

Worthy goals

Students, you’ve still got some summer left to enjoy before you dive back into school. But if you’re starting to think about goals for this year, consider focusing less on measures of your performance, like “I want to get a 4.0 GPA,” and more on measures of your effort, behavior, health, or character. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Maximize an existing strength.
  • Initiate something that might not work.
  • Spend more time with the subject you enjoy the most.
  • Spend less time trying to fix your weaknesses.
  • Worry less about standardized tests.
  • Show your favorite teacher you care more about learning than you do your final grade.
  • Try something new that looks interesting.
  • Do things that make you feel happy, proud, and fulfilled.
  • Make an impact in something you care about.
  • Make good change happen for someone or something.
  • Have more fun.
  • Worry less about things you can’t control.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep every night.
  • Let yourself off the hook if your best effort doesn’t produce the desired result.
  • Channel efforts into areas you can control.
  • Care more about what the people who care about you think.
  • Care less about what the people who don’t care about you think.
  • Treat the college admissions process as one important step on a much more important life journey.
  • Find excitement in the potential to attend college at all.
  • Take more responsibility for things you can do yourself.

Five tips to presenting well online

For students applying to college—and even more so for adults navigating the professional world—interactions are increasingly taking place online. You might be interviewed over Skype. You might be asked to create a video to share more about yourself. You might participate in meetings or deliver a webinar or present your new proposal to a team. As our Collegewise counselors do more and more of our work online with families and teammates, we asked our filmmaker, Frank Martinez, to share some advice on how to look our best when presenting virtually. Here’s a summary of his five most important tips.

1. Get in the right position.
Start by getting your camera at eye level (there’s no reason to give people a direct view up your nostrils). Do this by stacking some books, shoeboxes, or other appropriate building blocks on which to perch your laptop. Then sit roughly arm’s length from the screen. When you’re the correct distance from the screen, there should be a little space between the top of your head and the top of the frame (Frank says this is called “headroom”).

2. Get your light right.
Natural light is best providing it comes from the right direction. If you have a window in the room, face it. But never sit with your back to a window. This will throw off the camera exposure and create a distracting contrast between the bright background and your comparatively dark shape. Avoid overhead lights if you can, especially those fluorescents so common in office buildings. Here’s a Frank trick: If it’s too dark and you have an external monitor, make the screen’s background solid white and put it behind your laptop. This will actually serve as a decent light.

3. Choose the right spot for your shot.
First, get someplace quiet (your mic will pick up everything from family members in the next room to construction taking place outside). Avoid rooms with wooden floors and lots of hard surfaces as your voice will sound thin or even have an echo. Opt for rooms with rugs, couches, drapes, etc. if available. Also, consider your background, especially if you’re making a first impression online. Your friends won’t care about a messy room behind you, but that’s not the impression you want to make during an interview.

4. Give your equipment a fighting chance.
It shouldn’t be necessary to purchase expensive equipment unless you’re doing a project (like a popular podcast) that needs to deliver professional quality. But if your computer’s webcam struggles repeatedly to stay focused, or the picture looks dim and fuzzy, and you’d like to upgrade, you can get a very good external webcam for around $50. Also, consider using headphones with a built-in microphone if you’re unable to get to a library-quiet spot. They’ll do a better job than your computer’s mic will of listening to you and ignoring much of the background noise.

5. Don’t ignore the basics.
Everything that would matter in an in-person meetup still matters online. Be prepared and on time. Don’t look like you just rolled out of bed. Be both engaged—don’t be distracted by your phone—and engaging. The computer doesn’t remove those basics for making a good impression. But the first four tips will prevent something extraneous—like a distracting background or bad lighting—from becoming the most memorable part of your online interaction.

You’re making an impression whether it’s online or in person. A little thought and planning can help you make a strong one.

Thank them now, and thank them later

Adam Grant’s recent advice shared on his Twitter feed really resonated with me for a number of reasons.


  1. It’s a nice (and easy) thing to do.
  2. It feels less like a transaction when you care enough to reconnect.
  3. A mentor should know when their good advice followed in the moment builds in value over time.
  4. The mentor will be more likely to help you (and others) in the future.
  5. It encourages a generous cycle of sharing and reciprocating.

Give me just 60 minutes, and you’ll give colleges better essays

It’s last call for my college essay webinar happening on Tuesday, August 7, from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. PST. All the information and the form to register are here.

I advise students to be both proud of and clear about their strengths and achievements when applying to college, so let me take some of my own advice here. I’ve been running Collegewise for 19 years. College essays are one of the components of college admissions I enjoy speaking and teaching about the most. So here’s my promise. Students, whatever your level of academic achievement or your comfort around writing, give me just 60 minutes. Embrace the four tips (and I really do only need four) that I share around finding and writing your best stories. I promise you will write better essays that will help admissions officers see you for the person you are behind your grades and test scores.

I hope you’ll join me.

Three paths

Most students are somewhere on one of three paths when they choose their colleges.

  1. I know what I want to do with my life, and college is the path that will help me get there.
  2. I have some idea of what I want to do with my life, and I’d like to use my time in college to explore that path before I commit to it.
  3. I have no idea what I want to do with my life, and I’m going to college to discover more about myself, my talents, and my future path.

Some colleges are much better suited to one path than they are another. If you’re sure you want to be an engineer, it doesn’t make sense to go to a college that doesn’t offer an engineering major. But you don’t necessarily need to attend a highly selective engineering school to start down that path. You have options.

You can pick your colleges and then try to force yourself onto the path(s) they’re best suited to offer. Or you can pick the colleges that are suited to the path you already have to offer them. The former approach requires that you change your path. The latter allows you to embrace it.

Many–if not most–teens can’t draw a line to their future career today with 100% certainty. If you can, then please do. But if you can’t, don’t force it. Whichever path you’re on, there’s a college out there that will help you discover, test, or follow it.

Identify the path you’re on today. And choose a college that will help you take the right path to your tomorrow.

Is it time to make a different choice?

The New York Times ran a story this week entitled “Considering College? Maybe You Should Invest in a Coach,” which elicited reactions ranging from eye-rolling to blood boiling among the Collegewise crew. I won’t share the link here because a story like this is part of the problem that so many of us at Collegewise and in the counseling community are fighting against. The piece isn’t “fake news” in that the sources and statistics are factually correct. But it’s exactly the kind of banal, uninformative story that speaks to the neuroses of a very small population of people and does not represent the broader college admissions landscape.

Here were the themes, all of which you’ve probably heard before in the press and in high school student and parent circles.

  • It’s impossible to get into a “good” college today.
  • Hard-working, perfect-on-paper kids are getting roundly rejected from their dream schools.
  • Even the highest-achieving kids are always just one unintentional, innocuous misstep away—like not maintaining enough eye contact during their college interview—from sinking their admissions ships at their top colleges.
  • Parents are spending lots of money to give their kids an advantage, and they’re doing so as early as infants preparing for pre-school (I swear I am not making this up).
  • The admissions sky is falling, the competition is intense, and your fear is well-founded.

In response to this quote from a coach profiled in the piece, “There are heartbreaking stories every year of a student with a near-perfect SAT score and perfect grades rejected from every Ivy,” Eric Hoover, a writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, tweeted, “If this is your definition of ‘heartbreaking,’ you live a charmed life.”

Bravo, Mr. Hoover.

Every person is entitled to their own worldview. Some people believe that the only restaurants worth visiting are those with Michelin star chefs and a six-month waiting list for a table. But those of us who are perfectly happy with our favorite family-owned restaurant down the street don’t read stories about star chefs and worry that our kids will be at a disadvantage if we don’t start feeding them duck a l’orange at age two. That’s what’s troubling about the press covering this particular college admissions worldview. It implies that the world they describe encapsulates the world of college admissions, which it most certainly does not.

I’ve long wished—and still hold out hope—that the press would cover other stories that represent the majority, not a tiny minority, of the college-going population. I’d love to read tales of earnest, nice kids who got into every school they applied to, none of which were on the US News Top 50, and who flourished during and after college. I’d love to read about the kids who never spent a dime on counseling or test prep or tutoring and happily marched off to their own colleges of choice that were happy to admit them just as they were. I’d love to read about the families who watched their kids grow and learn during college, who beamed with pride as their students walked across the stage at graduation, and continue to beam at their happy and successful kids-turned-adults today, all without ever losing sleep over one grade, test score, or admissions decision.

The press doesn’t write about them. But I promise you they are out there. In fact, there are exponentially more of those families than there are of the anxious, Ivy-League-or-bust families who will stop at nothing to beat the competition and the system.

Families, you get to make a choice about how you approach the process. So please choose. Which camp do you want to be in?

Do you want to buy into the hype that the only colleges worth attending are those who turn away nearly every applicant who applies? Do you want to send the message to your kids that unless they earn an acceptance to a school that almost nobody gets accepted to, they’ve somehow fallen short and are now at a significant life disadvantage?

Or do you want to look around in society and acknowledge that happy and successful adults, from senators to software engineers, social workers to science fiction writers, have come from all kinds of colleges, many of which you’ve never heard of? Would you rather see your student for who they are, not for who a very tiny slice of the over 2,000 colleges in this country require them to be, and then find the schools that will happily welcome them with open admissions arms?

If you choose the first camp, please don’t play the heartbroken card if things don’t work out as you’d hoped. You opted in as you had every right to do. But you made your choice.

And to the press who covers college admissions, maybe it’s time you made a different choice, too?