On lasting impressions

The last job I had before I started Collegewise in 1999 got off to a bad start. I’d moved across the country to take the position and arrived for my first day of work only to find my boss unavailable and my desk empty—no computer, no phone, and no access pass to get to the meeting rooms on the second floor. I spent the entire day interrupting people to ask for help and foraging for tools to get started. Worst of all, everyone important in my life reached out and asked eagerly, “How was your first day?” Day one deflated all the excitement I’d had about the position and the company. So it’s not surprising that we do first days a lot differently at Collegewise.

We have two goals when a new employee starts at Collegewise: (1) Send a clear message of “We are thrilled that you are here,” and (2) Give them a great story to tell when their friends and loved ones ask, “How was your first day?” We send out a personalized introduction of each of them to the entire company. They spend time learning from our trainers, our CEO, and their new colleagues, all of whom join them for lunch and dinner on day #1. We construct the entire experience to make them feel welcome and to give them a great story to tell. Done right, the first day sets a tone and reinforces that they’ve made a great decision to join us.

We can’t make every day as memorable as the first at Collegewise, but we’ve learned that we can create meaningful experiences that give employees the same lift. Whether it’s a promotion, a successful completion of an important project, or the anniversary of their start at Collegewise, whenever possible, we try to create a meaningful, story-worthy experience, one that shows each employee just how much they matter to us beyond a worker filling a position. Naysayers may claim that we’re a business and that employees should just do their jobs. But work is personal for the person doing the work. If we want employees who are delighted, proud, loyal, and engaged, we’ve got to give them experiences that make them feel that way.

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences have Extraordinary Impact, argue that our memories don’t just take an average of our moment-by-moment experiences. We remember key events, the memorable highs (or lows). Think back to your last family vacation, your wedding day, or your child’s graduation from college. Chances are, you aren’t focusing on the details made insignificant by time. You remember the key moments that now shape the entire experience in your mind, like the family photo with Mickey Mouse, the first dance, or the moment your college graduate walked across the stage to accept his degree. Once we appreciate the value of these experiences, we can identify opportunities to embrace and create them both at work and at home.

If you’d like to create a culture of key moments in your business, start small. Identify or create an event with potential, like an employee’s first day, a salesperson’s millionth dollar in revenue, or a promotion to a new position. Then imagine it was your child, partner, or best friend. How would you like to see them treated? What story would you want them to tell you about how their workplace made them feel recognized and valued? Once you know the story, you can get to work creating one that’s personal, not programmatic.

We can’t engineer every day to be perfect at work. But if we create enough memorable experiences to enjoy and stories to tell, we can make a lasting impression as good as our first day’s.

How to use our free Common App guide

CA guide coverOur Collegewise Guide to the 2018-19 Common Application is here, free to anyone who wants it. I have vivid memories of one full day in July 2011 when Arun and I went line by line through the Common App and considered all the advice we could give for every section. The result was a 64-page Microsoft Word document crafted on a desktop computer. I don’t think either of us ever imagined that Collegewise would still be producing updated annual versions of the guide seven years later or that so many of our colleagues would help us make it even better. And we certainly never imagined that we’d publish it one day with Michelle Obama’s education initiative, Reach Higher. But we’re so happy that our guide has proven to have staying power. You can get your copy here.

Borrowed from a past post, here are a few suggestions for how you might use our guide:


  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help. We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line-by-line review before you submit.
  • Struggling with just a particular section or two? Our guide can probably help.


If you are the official college application reviewer in the house, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application (kids should always complete their own college applications even if a parent will review them).

High school counselors

  • Looking to brush up on your Common App knowledge? Spend an hour with our guide and you’ll be a virtual expert.
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App? Keep a copy of our guide on your desk (or bookmark the link to save a tree) and use it whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Share it with colleagues, teachers, and students.
  • Post the link on your website or in your student newsletters.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing your students’ Common Applications.
  • Share the link with your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.
  • Do you have partners, employees, or interns who work with students? Our guide makes a great training tool.

What we ask of you

If you know a family, counselor, PTA president, community-based organization, etc. who could use this guide or who could put it in the hands of those it might help, please share our download link.

I hope you enjoy—and share—it.

P.S.: If you haven’t already signed up, don’t miss our upcoming free webinar, “How to Make your Common App a Lot Less Common” on Wednesday, September 12, from 5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT. All the details are here.

Two big announcements from Collegewise

It’s been an exciting week at Collegewise, and we’ve got two big announcements to share:

First, we’ve partnered with Reach Higher, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to inspire every student in the U.S. to complete their education past high school. Founded during her time at the White House, Reach Higher is particularly focused on helping underserved students navigate the college-going process. This partnership means that we’ll share many of our Collegewise resources, tools, and trainings so Reach Higher can get them to kids and counselors in their extensive network.

And as part of the announcement, we’re also releasing our updated version of our annual Collegewise Guide to the Common AP, this year appropriately co-branded with Reach Higher. You can get your own free copy here. And check out Collegewise counselor Arun’s piece in Forbes: “Five Things Collegewise And Reach Higher Want You to Know.”

It’s hard to overstate how excited we are about this partnership. Beyond the pride and, frankly, giddiness, that comes with telling our friends and family that we’re part of Michelle Obama’s initiative, we’ve long professed a commitment to doing our part to keep the college playing field level. History shows that those have never been just words for us, and I’m proud of how much we do. But many of us at Collegewise, myself included, often feel like we’re not doing enough. It’s been a struggle to reconcile our values around college access and our realities of running a business that needs to make money to keep doing what we do so well. Our commitment to Reach Higher doesn’t just put dollars, time, and effort behind the values we espouse. Far more importantly, it will help us help a lot more kids that we could never reach or impact before.

In a place where most of us feel proud to come to work every day, this week will be hard to top.

Please share the download link for our Common App guide with students, parents, counselors, community-based organizations, and anyone else who may have a hand in helping kids get where they want to go. That’s who it’s there for. And now more than ever, that’s what we’re here for.

We built a Master Class for our counselors

Earlier this summer, I posed this question to a few of my Collegewise colleagues: Could we help our newer Collegewise counselors get even better, faster?

Our counselors in their first or second year at Collegewise are not inexperienced rookies. Most arrived here after working as admissions officers or counselors. They’ve already completed more than 50 hours of training with us. They’ve successfully enrolled and delighted families. They’ve long since progressed far beyond the basics.

But we also have counselors who have been here five or seven or ten years who are pillars of college counseling knowledge. We wondered if there were any way to accelerate counseling learning and growth to turn newer counselors into veteran counselors. If you’re a sports fan, this wasn’t like trying to get an average basketball player to play like a college prospect. This was trying to get a player already on an NBA starting five roster to play like LeBron James.

The result: The Collegewise College Counseling Master Class.

Starting this week, interested first and second year Collegewise counselors will enroll and begin their Master Class-level learning. Ten lessons, each comprised of videos, readings, discussions, and exercises, will run through December until we close out for our holiday break.

I’ll occasionally share some of our Master Class teachings (and learnings) here as the course progresses. But if your’e curious, here’s the course syllabus. And the trailer, featuring me and Arun, along with our special guests Allison (who runs our Talent Department with me) and Frank (our filmmaker), is below:

We’re excited about—and proud of—this and can’t wait to get started.

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.

Join me for a college essay webinar

I’ll be teaching a free college essay webinar on Tuesday, August 7.

How to Craft Compelling, Cliché-Free College Essays
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

All the details and registration information are here. I hope you’ll join me.


Learn about college from our former Collegewise students

Collegewise is hosting a free Facebook live session featuring a panel of our former students who now attend a variety of different colleges.

What’s College Really Like?: A Former Collegewise Student Panel
Thursday, July 12, 2018
6 p.m. – 7 p.m. PDT

They will discuss their experiences on a variety of college campuses, share what they wish they’d known before they started college, and reveal all they’ve learned about how to thrive in college. You can register and get all the details here. I hope you’ll join us.


Announcing the Collegewise Scholarship Program

At Collegewise, we make our living working with families who can afford to hire us. But we’ve always felt a responsibility to be generous with our time, our resources, and our counseling to help get information and assistance to kids who won’t have a Collegewise counselor to guide them. One of the ways we’ve done that is to work with students pro-bono. What we haven’t done is formalize this work. We’ve never established how many pro-bono kids we can help through the process while doing a good job for both them and for our customers. We’ve never publicized any program like this or offered an organized way for students to raise their hand for consideration, or for counselors on the high school side to identify kids they believe would benefit. That’s about to change.

The Collegewise Scholarship Program
This week we’re proud to announce the Collegewise Scholarship Program. Championed and brought to fruition by our own Casey Near, this program will assist U.S. students of limited means who would benefit from working one-on-one with a Collegewise counselor. We’ll help them build their college lists. We’ll help them craft their applications and essays. We’ll act as the project managers, answer their questions, and cheerlead them through a successful college application process.

How to apply
This year, we’re accepting applications from rising seniors in the class of 2019 residing in the United States (including DACA students). For students interested in applying—and for high school counselors who’d like to share this opportunity with particular students—the application is available here. The deadline to apply is June 22nd. If spaces are still available after that date, we’ll consider applications on a rolling basis. If you have any questions, please email scholarship@collegewise.com. We’re excited to have the opportunity to help more kids find their way to the right colleges, and to do even more to help level the college access playing field.

Collegewise’s employee handbook is now public

Last month, I released a brand new version of “Life at Collegewise,” our employee handbook. Joining a new company can be a difficult adjustment when you don’t know how things work, you don’t completely understand the culture, and you’re constantly having to ask questions. With nearly 70 fellow Wisers spread out all over the country (and increasingly all over the world), it’s even more important for us to make sure that those joining our family feel at home as quickly as possible. “Life at Collegewise” is here to help.

This document has always been private, shared only with current or soon-to-be Collegewise employees. Until today. Here is “Life at Collegewise” in its (almost) entirety. I’ve removed only two portions from this public version: (1) the steps to file an expense report (because really, who wants to read that if you aren’t filing one?), and (2) our company glossary, because it’s full of esoteric insider terms that just won’t make sense if you don’t work here.

So why share it?

First, we’re proud of what we’re building here, and even more importantly, that we’re all in this together. The words in “Life at Collegewise” are mine, but the work, the ideas, the initiative, and the investment—everything that makes us who we are—are the result of the collective contributions of everyone here today, and yesterday. It feels good to celebrate and to share it.

Second, we’re always preaching to students, colleagues, and colleges to be themselves. Contrived attempts to appeal to the masses are not good recipes for producing great work. “Life at Collegewise” is our way of saying, “This is who we are, this is what we care about, and this is why those things matter to us.” It won’t resonate with everyone, and we’re OK with that. The people with whom those beliefs and actions strike a chord are most likely to appreciate why, what, and how we do things.

Finally, I hope that “Life at Collegewise” inspires some change-makers at other companies to rethink their own life at work. Collegewise is not perfect—far from it. Nineteen years in, we’re still a work in progress, and we’re always trying to get better. But making things better starts with believing that things can get better. I hope “Life at Collegewise” makes you a believer, too.

And if you decide after reading “Life at Collegewise” that you might like to experience life here as a fellow Wiser, check out our open positions here. You might also enjoy this short video courtesy of our full-time filmmaker.

Join us for a free event in White Plains, NY

Collegewise is hosting a free event in White Plains, New York, open to students, parents, and counselors.

Highly Selective Admissions: Debunking the Myths 
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. EDT
White Plains Performing Arts Center
11 City Pl. 
White Plains, NY 10601

About the speakers:

Arun Ponnusamy is Collegewise’s Chief Academic Officer and is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable college counselors and admissions experts in the United States. In his previous admissions roles, he evaluated the files of over 7,500 seniors applying for admission to the University of Chicago (his alma mater), Caltech and UCLA.

Nandita Gupta is an online counselor at Collegewise who previously worked as an admissions officer at Stanford University where she evaluated thousands of domestic and international applicants. A graduate of Princeton, Nandita also completed stints in investment banking at JP Morgan in New York City and executive search with globally renowned Russell Reynolds Associates in San Francisco.

All the information and the form to register are here. I hope you’ll join us.