For students considering internships

Students, if you’re considering an internship this (or in a future) summer, please consider reading these two posts.

This is one of mine, to help you decide if you should seek an internship.

And this is from the smart folks at Basecamp on what they learned while hiring their first batch of summer interns. I think the entire article is interesting, but students can scroll down to the “Tips for Prospective Interns” (just about all of which overlap with my advice for job seekers).


Find a better way

The long-running format for the infomercial is to portray a frustrated soul struggling mightily to do something we can all identify with—mop a dirty floor, pry stuck brownies off a cookie sheet, find the lid to our 17th piece of Tupperware, etc. And the host then pleads, “There’s got to be a better way!” Cue the miracle solution (for just $19.95—operators are standing by!).

And while that somewhat hack premise is also a source of great innovation (FedEx, Amazon, Uber—they all found a better way than what existed before them), you don’t necessarily have to create the next big thing to find a better way. Maybe your better way is just a subtle change to a process, project, or organization you’re already a part of.

A former Collegewise student spent two summers working as a docent leading people on tours of a wildlife preserve in Southern California. Lots of summer camps and day cares would bring children to take the tours. And he learned pretty fast that their attention spans were just not long enough to survive the 45-minute tour, much of which focused on pointing out native plants.

So he took photographs of 10-12 plants and animals that onlookers could expect to see on the tour, pasted them into a document, and then created laminated copies. Whenever he gave a tour to a group of children, he gave each of them their page of photographs and had a contest to see which child could correctly identify the most plants and animals that appeared in the photographs. He turned what used to be a too-long-and-too-boring presentation for kids into a treasure hunt that they really enjoyed. And it became part of an endearing college essay about his summers leading people through the wild.

In their quest to be competitive for college, many students think about the resume splash of creating something from scratch. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, especially if founding a club, launching a non-profit, writing a play, etc. is something you’re legitimately interested in doing.

But don’t overlook the opportunities to create change and make an impact with the things you’re already doing. Every project, every organization, and every event has room for improvement. Maybe the opportunity for you to make your mark is to find a better way?

Leadership is “Follow me”

When I was a sophomore in high school, Sizzler began a promotion called “Steak and all-you-can-eat shrimp,” which was exactly what it sounds like—along with your steak, servers would continue to bring you as many deep-fried, breaded shrimp as you dared to eat.

An enterprising student at my school saw that as a perfect opportunity for a class fundraiser and organized a “Junior Class Shrimp-A-Thon.” Instead of selling candy bars, washing cars, or recycling any of the other same-as-every-other-year fundraising drives, participating juniors each solicited sponsors based on how many of those shrimp they could hopefully gulp down.

The class raised nearly $4,000, led by two football players who each ate over 100 shrimp (if memory serves, neither of those shellfish-guzzling warriors were physically able to show up to school the next day).

The student behind the Shrimp-A-Thon didn’t hold a formal office in his junior class. But everything about his fundraiser demonstrated real leadership. He had to see the opportunity. He had to sell people on it and convince them to follow him. He had to organize the participants, work with the local Sizzler to host the event, and track the funds raised. And most importantly, he had to take responsibility for a new idea that might not work.

He didn’t get to list “Junior class president” on his college applications. But he could describe the initiative he took, the impact he made, and the leadership skills he displayed in doing so.

The term “leadership” gets thrown around a lot during college admissions discussions. But it’s important for students and their parents to understand that merely holding an office (or starting a club two weeks before you apply to college) isn’t actually leadership. Real leadership is the ability to envision something in the future—a change, a goal, a better outcome, etc.—and then convince people to follow you. Elected officials can (and should!) do those things. But you don’t necessarily need a title, an office, or even authority to do it. See where you want to go, then rally people who want to follow you. If you can do those things, you’re leading.

The Shrimp-A-Thon originator? He went on to study history at UCLA and later completed medical school. Today, he is a physician and the director of a community ER (who would likely discourage patients from eating buckets of deep-fried shrimp).

Return expectations

Parents, if you’re considering spending the money to send your student to an expensive summer program at a prestigious college, and doing so because you hope it will improve his or her chances of admission, please read this Washington Post piece first.

I’m not against a student with the means to attend a summer program at Stanford, Harvard, or any other prestigious college actually doing so. But just as you would with any other investment, please make sure you have realistic expectations of what you can—and cannot—expect in return.

Need summer planning suggestions?

High school students can have a summer that’s not just relaxing and enjoyable, but also one that’s productive and helps them get into college. Collegewise counselors Tom Barry, Colleen Boucher, Sara Kratzok, and Liz Marx have revised and updated the Collegewise Guide to Summer Planning. And best of all, it’s still free for students, parents, and counselors. You can get your copy here.

I hope you enjoy it and share it.

Activity currency

One of the reasons you might participate in activities is for the accolades you’ll receive if you achieve enough success. You might be elected to an office, or receive an award, or earn a distinction–any one of which should make you proud. And colleges always appreciate success like that.

But what if you’re expending the effort without those traditional measures of success? What if you aren’t on the leadership team or in the starting lineup or on the docket for the awards ceremony? Should you still continue?

I’ve written before that quitting gets an often undeserved bad rap, particularly for high school kids. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should jettison an activity just because you aren’t being recognized. There are plenty of other ways an activity can pay you back. Here are a few.

Access (to people, places, or opportunities)
Improved mental and/or physical health
A sense of fulfillment, pride, or other positive emotion
Service to others
Work experience (and yes, actual money)

If an activity isn’t giving anything back, no matter how much you give, then by all means, consider quitting. Rededicate that time and energy to something that doesn’t just take from you.

But remember that trophies, distinctions, and other awards aren’t the only viable returns for your activity investment. Insist on payment of some kind, but be open about the particular currency.

Emphasize the “I”

Most college admissions officers, even those who’ve never been near a football field, know about life as a high school football player. They’ve seen applications with descriptions of the activity. They’ve read essays about players’ experiences. The hard work, the double days during summers, the camaraderie with teammates—they’ve heard, read, and learned all about it.

That doesn’t devalue the experience at all for the players or the readers. But you don’t stand out just by doing and sharing what thousands of your fellow football players around the country have done. The same could be said for editors of papers, chess club treasurers, student body presidents, and any of the activities that exist on most high school campuses. When you say, “Here’s what I’ve done,” you’re adding yourself to a large and, on the surface, very similar group.

Unless you change “Here’s what I’ve done” to “Here’s what I’ve done.”

As you commit yourself to activities you care about, always think about what you can do that goes beyond the basics of showing up to practice, meetings, rehearsals, etc. You are not like every other football player, editor, musician, writer, programmer, singer, worker, or leader. You are what’s different. The more you that you bring, the more indispensable you’ll be.

If you want to stand out when you apply to college, emphasize the “I” now, and when you apply.

Impact doesn’t need a spokesperson

Students (or their parents) often ask us this question about letters of recommendation in college applications:

Can I submit a letter of recommendation from someone who’s not my teacher or counselor (like a coach, a boss, a pastor, etc.)?

The answer is yes, if a college specifically invites you to do so. But it’s far more common for colleges to ask for letters from teachers and counselors. Most colleges clearly state in their application instructions what they want you to send them. Ignoring those instructions or deciding that you have a better way is one of the surest ways to annoy an admissions officer and even hurt your chances of admission.

But you don’t need a letter of recommendation to prove that you made an impact.

Did you organize the fundraiser for the basketball team?

Were you promoted to assistant manager after only four months at your part-time job?

Did your pastor specifically ask you to become a youth group leader?

Then say so.

Mention it in the “Activity” section of the application as part of the description for the involvement. Share those relevant impact details if you write about the activity in an essay. When your college interviewer gives you an opportunity, give her the backstory about how you ran the fundraiser, or what you did that made you stand out at work, or what your pastor said when he chose you to run the youth group.

A letter of recommendation is just one way to describe an impact you made in an activity. Concentrate first on making an impact in whatever you’re doing. Be so good, committed, or just plain positive that people would notice if you stopped showing up. Then use the pieces and parts of an application to share not only what you did, but also the specific ways you made yourself indispensable.

When you make a real impact, you won’t need a spokesperson to describe it.

An honor or a scam?

It happens to thousands of families every year.

A student receives a large envelope in the mail with an embossed, gold-sealed certificate of congratulations for being “selected” to attend a reportedly exclusive summer program. The language lauds the student, claiming, “You and your parents should be very proud of this recognition and unique honor.” Then it closes with the kicker—all the family needs to do to fulfill this honor and allow their student to attend the program is to fork over thousands of dollars. (Operators are standing by!)

Before I rant on this, I’m not commenting on these programs’ offerings or their quality. I’m sure there are some students who have attended and return raving about the experience.

But the marketing is an outright scam.

These companies purchase mailing lists of teenagers’ information, then craft their marketing messages to dupe families into believing that this is a selection rather than a sales pitch. There is no unique honor being bestowed. There isn’t even a selection process. It’s just a far more expensive version of those print ads that masquerade as news articles. It purports to be one thing when it is in fact something entirely different. And worst of all, these companies intentionally prey on families’ college admissions anxiety.

I’d hate to think how many families sacrificed thousands of dollars not because their student was genuinely interested in the program, but rather because they were hoping that the “honor” of attending would somehow be recognized during the admissions process.

I’m not against students attending these or any other summer programs. But families deserve to make fully informed choices about what they’re paying for and what they’re getting in return.

Here are a few good reads to help:

A 2009 New York Times article, Congratulations! You Are Nominated. It’s an Honor. (It’s a Sales Pitch.)

A past post cautioning families on paying for recognition.

Another one about whether or not you’ll receive an admissions advantage by attending an expensive program (whether or not that program uses deceitful marketing practices).

And while we’re hard at work updating our free guide to summer programs, you can still find a lot of good advice in last year’s version, available with our other free resources here.

Lessons learned in Chicago

I mentioned earlier this week that I was traveling to Chicago to take a class with Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp (formerly 37signals), on how they run their company. I’ve always admired and respected the way he approaches everything about work and business. While Fried’s company builds web-based software, which is not at all similar to what we do at Collegewise, he has customers. He has employees. He wants to be proud of his organization and what they produce. And I think his approach has a lot of application not just for companies, but also for students, counselors, and parents who work in groups to get things that they care about done.

Here are a few of the lessons I took away. To be clear, this workshop’s purpose was to reveal their approach, not necessarily to suggest that these are all appropriate for any organization.

Your company should be your best product.
Your company is the product that produces all the others, so you should operate your company with as much love, attention, and care as you put into building products. Whether you run a private college counseling shop, a high school counseling department, a PTA, or a high school club, they’re all like companies. And even if they don’t sell products, they exist to do something as an organization, whether that’s advising students, unifying parents to help better the school, or producing a high school yearbook. And you can’t expect to produce great results without a great organization.

[If you’re not in charge, see this past post about creating a pocket of greatness.]

Share new ideas with only a few people.
If you have an idea you’re excited about, don’t share it with the entire group right away. Instead, share it privately with a few employees, colleagues, or members. New ideas tend to die in big groups. Too many questions about details that don’t matter yet. Too many worries about problems that haven’t happened yet. Too many “Here’s how we’ve always done its.” A big group slows down the progress before an idea even has a chance to develop. Instead, pick a few people to share your idea with. Have an open but focused discussion and really listen to their feedback. If you can’t get these 2-3 people excited, chances are, your idea wouldn’t have found life in the group anyway. But if 2-3 people have a chance to flesh an idea out first, you might be able to present it together, and do so more effectively.

And here’s a Collegewise alternative—if you don’t need the group’s approval, you might consider our “Here’s what I’m doing” strategy.

Approach big projects in six-week cycles.
A project should always have a deadline to ship (complete it). But big projects have lots of little projects within them, things that need to get completed along the way. When you assign specific deadlines to each piece, you’ll fall behind (and lose momentum) before you know it. Instead, try working in six-week cycles. Once a group agrees to take on a big project—a fundraiser, a new marketing plan, a revamping of an existing system, etc.–start with a six-week cycle and decide what to work on during that time.

For example, a senior class might need to plan a prom. There’s a fixed date when that prom is going to happen. But there are lots of things that need to get done in the months that lead up to it: finding a location, deciding on music and decorations, fundraising, promoting it, selling tickets, etc. It’s a lot to consider at once. So start with a six-week cycle. Decide on the most important things to focus on and who will be responsible for what (more on both of those decisions below). Then dive in and get going. At the end of those six weeks, your project won’t be done yet. But you’ll be surprised by how much progress you’ve made in such a short time. Progress creates momentum. And you’ll be fueled by plenty of what Fried calls “Quick wins.”

And here are a few ideas to try during one of those six-week cycles:

Assign pieces of the large project to small teams of 2-3 people.
You might need a lot more than 2-3 people to pull off a senior prom. But 2-3 people can focus on finding the location. Another 2-3 can focus on fundraising, another small group on promotion, and another on ticket sales, etc. Small teams work well together. It’s easier to communicate and harder for dead weight to coast on the others’ work. And best of all, multiple small teams focused on their own important pieces and parts get more done than one large team focusing on the same thing.

Use the inverted pyramid to decide what to work on now.
Journalists use a method called the inverted pyramid when writing a story. The most vital parts of the story come first. Every subsequent paragraph should be less important than the one before it. Start with the big stuff, then get to the details. If an editor needs to shorten a story, she never has to guess which part of an article to cut out. If your small team is in charge of promoting an event, what are the most important things you need to get done (it’s what Fried calls “Starting at the epicenter“)? Deciding on a date, time, and place, maybe? That’s the top of the pyramid. The color of your poster board for signs doesn’t matter at all if you don’t have an event to promote, so it goes towards the bottom of the pyramid.

I’ve also written about how this concept can strengthen your college applications.

Fix time and budget, flex on scope.
Projects are unpredictable. Not everything will go as planned during your six-week cycle. But a small team never gets to demand more money or time. Instead, they can trim parts of the project off, move them to the next cycle, and finish the remaining portions well, on time, and on budget. This is where the inverted pyramid comes in—you’ll know what to clip and punt to the next cycle. Fried calls this “scope hammering.” It helps you focus on the things that matter. It keeps progress moving and prevents the less relevant details from grinding progress to a halt. A small thing done well, on time, and on budget is better than a large thing done late, beyond budget, or poorly.

Separate by scope, not by role.
If you’re producing the high school yearbook, don’t put all the photographers on one team together for six weeks. Sure, they’ll take lots of pictures, but they won’t know or be able to affect how the rest of the yearbook is coming together. Instead, assign the necessary people to the appropriate project piece. For example, the sports section might have one writer, one ad salesperson, and one photographer—that’s a three-person team. They know their job, they know what each member must contribute, and most importantly, they never have any doubt about the status of the project—the sports section itself—as they approach a deadline.

Take a short breather.
At the end of each six-week cycle, take a breather for a week. Not to sit back and do nothing, but to focus on polishing or improving what you’ve just released. Then jump into your next six-week cycle.

If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend Fried’s books, especially Rework.