The answers we don’t like

Every parent has experienced some version of the transformation that takes place when your child decides they don’t like your answer to one of their questions. They ask for the ice cream or the video or the new toy, and when the “no” comes back from the parent, the response can range from a toddler-like tantrum to lawyer-like negotiation. All in hopes of getting a different answer.

College counselors often face the same behavior from both students and parents.

A counselor delivers an honest answer or a truth that’s difficult to hear. Stanford is not a realistic choice. The letter of recommendation from an alum will not significantly improve your chances at Penn. Your essay about your work with National Charity League won’t mitigate the Cs on your transcript. Whatever it is, if it’s hard to hear, some students and parents will look for a way to get a different answer.

“What if I made a personal connection with a rep at a college fair?”

“Our neighbor told us something very different.”

“We have a friend who went to Yale, and she agrees with our choice of essay topic.”

But much like the most resolute parents facing an equally resolute child, a college counselor is unlikely to give you a different answer. It’s not because we’re stubborn or that we care most about being right. It’s because in most cases, the new information or debate or rephrasing just doesn’t change the factual answer.

I can certainly understand the inclination to do more than just acquiesce in the face of unpalatable information. And you should never hesitate to ask follow-up questions to better understand what your counselor is sharing or recommending.

But the continuous search for a different answer is usually not productive. It doesn’t help you move forward or make better decisions. It raises stress instead of lowering it. It makes kids feel less in control of the process, not more so. And it usually amounts to effort and focus that could have been more productively spent elsewhere.

People of all ages are sometimes better off accepting the answer we might not like, and then deciding how to move forward productively from there.

More than just words

Our hiring process at Collegewise is a good reminder of what it must be like for admissions officers at many colleges to read applications.

We receive hundreds of applications for open positions at Collegewise. And every one of them is read by a human. But for an applicant to progress to the next round of evaluation, they have to give that human a reason to turn around and make that recommendation. One of the least effective offerings is banal language that reads like that of every other applicant.

Here’s an example, a version of which arrives several times a day in our Talent Team’s inboxes.

“I’m a hard-working, results-driven, team-oriented person with a drive to get things done.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But what does it tell us, really?  That they are not a lazy, directionless, cantankerous person lacking the gumption to succeed? That’s not a powerful argument for a reader to make on an applicant’s behalf.

What if those job-seekers moved to more descriptive, specific examples to show us how they embody those traits?

I make at least 50 cold calls a day, but I don’t feel like I’ve done my job until at least a few of them transform into happy customers. I’ve been asked to join almost every team at work, including our party planning committee, our website overhaul team, and our group assigned to revamp our employee training. I’m willing to swear off the occasional weekend to work on a project that I really care about (my last involved researching accounting software for our company). For me to reflect on any day as a “good day,” I need to have something productive to show for it. I’ve learned to channel these instincts well, and I’m excited about the opportunity to get things done in this role for you.

See the difference? Now, my curiosity is piqued. I want to hear more about the calls, the teams, and the projects. I’m not necessarily ready to say “yes” yet, but I’ve got a lot more reasons to do so than I did in the example that preceded this.

Not everything a student has done will be an experience unique to them. But the details behind your experiences are what change you from a same-as-so-many-others applicant on paper to a real person a reader can better understand. So use your application, essay, and interview as an opportunity to show (with details) why you’re more than just words.


From the University of Virginia’s Twitter feed (for reference, the maximum score on these tests is 800):


The obsession with standardized test scores, the unnecessary parental pushing, the phone call coming from the parent rather than the student—it encapsulates the reality that much of the anxiety and pressure families find in this process is self-induced.

The right formula?

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report on the impact of organized sports on children, preadolescents, and adolescents. The study found that what makes sports enjoyable for kids is not the winning, but rather, “trying hard, making progress, being a good sport, and experiencing positive coaching.” The report is here, and a summary in the New York Times is here.

It might be tempting for some (competitive) readers to dismiss the findings as indicative of a failure to prepare our kids for the harsh realities of the world. But one of those realities is that you can’t always win—at sports, at work, in college admissions, etc. Not even the most successful adults have life-long wining streaks, especially if they’ve taken on real challenges and frequently put themselves in failure’s path. Wouldn’t our kids be more prepared, not less, if they could find joy in working hard, getting better, treating people well, and welcoming help from people who genuinely want them to succeed?

Sounds like the formula to me.

Greatness isn’t reserved

Jay Matthews, venerable and semi-retired education writer at the Washington Post, still resurfaces occasionally and adds his wise thoughts to calm college admissions mania, this time to remind us all about a young filmmaker who was denied from both USC and UCLA’s film schools, enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, and went on to become one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

That student was Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg is a story-worthy illustration that you don’t need to attend a famous college to be successful. But the circumstances surrounding his career path also make him a potentially less effective example. Few professions are as competitive as the film industry. They aren’t just handing out directing jobs to anyone with a degree. And yet Spielberg’s films have won 34 Academy Awards and grossed over 10 billion dollars, making him the highest earning filmmaker of all time.

How many filmmakers have achieved that level of success, regardless of where they went to college? Spielberg’s career is in many ways a well-deserved aberration. That’s why it might be easy for a reader to dismiss the example with, “Well, he’s Steven Spielberg. Of course it didn’t matter where he went to college.”

But the overarching point is not at all an aberration. Most successful people did not attend highly selective colleges. There are professions and people and societal challenges waiting for people to show up and play successful roles. Highly selective colleges can’t possibly produce enough graduates to fill all of them.

So whether or not you become as iconic in your profession as Steven Spielberg did in his, your path to get there will be rich with opportunities to learn, grow, discover your talents, and even have some fun along the way. All you have to do is attend a college where you will avail yourself of them.

Spielberg is story worthy. But the proof is there within just about every profession: greatness isn’t reserved for graduates of colleges that turn away most of their applicants.

It will never be perfect

Collegewise counselor Davin S. forwarded me this New York Times article, “It’s Never Going to Be Perfect, So Just Get It Done.” The link was persnickety and really wanted to require a subscription until I somehow tricked it into revealing itself, but the gist is pretty clear: Voltaire was right—perfect really is the enemy of good. Anything worth doing will likely never be perfect. While you shouldn’t release something that doesn’t make you proud, if you hold out for perfect, your project will be on hold indefinitely.

The “perfect vs. good enough” challenge shows up often for students writing college essays and completing applications. They’ve written. They’ve revised. They’ve sought and incorporated feedback. The work is more than good enough to submit. But the pressure and anxiety take hold and drive them to seek one more opinion, try one more revision, make one more polish, over and over until they’ve not only missed perfect, but also left good enough behind.

This is one of the many reasons so many students scramble right up until the application deadlines. The search for perfect never ends until the deadline decides good enough will have to be good enough.

College applications deserve time and attention. I would never recommend an applicant complete them like a task for which done is always good enough. But when incremental improvements become unnecessary changes, you’re moving further from perfect, not closer to it. Here are two past posts, here and here, to help you tell the difference.

The difference between ordinary and remarkable

Seth Godin’s latest post, “The $50,000 an hour gate agent,” really resonated with me. And you don’t need to be a gate agent, or even a traveler, to embrace the lesson here.

Whatever role you play—teammate, classmate, counselor, friend, coworker, etc.—what would it take for you to make the kind of impression that this gate agent did?

A little caring, a little effort, a little oomph is often all it takes. But the difference is what moves you from ordinary to remarkable.

Everyone = anyone

College applicants—and professional recruiters—can learn a lot about the art of presentation from the way most businesses write job posts.

Too many companies post job openings that include a lot of words without actually saying anything.

A few real examples I found with a brief Google search:

“Seeking accomplished executive able to drive results through high engagement, collaboration, and accountability.”

“Must be a strong, self-motivated, self-directed leader with the ability to effectively operate and deliver high-quality results in a fast-paced environment.”

“Deliver stories and activations within the primary stream of the brand process and create sufficient organizational focus to achieve the revenue goals.”

Sure, the sentences are technically correct in that they are free of spelling and grammar mistakes. But it’s hard to imagine any strong candidate reading these posts alone and deciding, “I think this sounds like the perfect role for me!”

Consider what’s at stake for both the company and the candidate when seeking to fill a position. The company will invest time, energy, and money into whoever is hired. Their performance will almost certainly impact the business and their coworkers. And for just about any applicant, taking a new job is a big deal. In saying yes to an offer, they’re inevitably saying no to something else, like a different offer, or their current job, or even their current city or career path.

With so much on the line, why resort to language that sounds just like every other (terrible) job post? Don’t both parties deserve a thoughtful description of the company, the role, and the type of person who would likely be successful within both? Doesn’t the entire process work better when the ad draws in the right people, and even repels those who would ultimately never thrive in this opportunity?

There are two lessons here:

(1) Presenting something that reads, looks, or sounds like all the others is a lousy way to stand out.

(2) Whether you’re writing a college essay, website copy, or a job post, don’t use bland, recycled wording and descriptions just for the sake of filling the space. Be clear. Be direct. Be specific. Say something. Sound like you.

Presenting like everyone reduces you to just anyone.

P.S. In Collegewise, we’ve built a company we believe is unlike any other. And we’ve given our job posts the thoughtful care and attention to reflect just that.

Don’t get duped

They’re baaaack…

To the annual frustration and ire of good counselors and admissions officers everywhere, students across the country are receiving notifications that they have been nominated for membership to an exclusive, prestigious honor society, one that will open doors to scholarships and impress colleges. All they have to do to avail themselves of the purported benefits? Pay the membership fee.

Don’t do it. They’re scams. All of them.

It’s difficult to be direct with families about this once they and their student have understandably become excited about the nomination. The presentation, a decorative, heavyweight mailing with the embossed invitation and certificate of nomination, certainly feels legit. But the alternative is to allow families to fork over money for a membership that will never deliver all–or any–of the benefits it promises.

I’ve written about this before, so rather than revisit the warning in a new writeup, here’s a past post featuring a quote from Collegewise Chief Academic Officer (who also worked at Caltech and University of Chicago), Arun Ponnusamy, with a particularly effective takedown of the organization currently making their annual pilgrimage into students’ mailboxes, the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS).

You can also find numerous complaints about this organization on the Better Business Bureau’s website.

Even good companies experience customer service challenges. But I would never engage with any organization that has to spend this much time defending itself and its practices in response to unhappy customers who feel they were duped.

Five college topics to discuss before applications

Some of the most important topics in college planning aren’t discussed until there is tension, confusion, or outright family disagreement around them. For families with rising seniors who will soon begin their applications, here are five topics to discuss beforehand.

1. Areas of collegiate disagreement
It’s normal for parents and students to disagree on the right college environment for the student. And while the student who will actually spend four years at the college should drive the decision, parents still get to weigh in, especially if they’re paying the bill. Instead of butting heads, use those areas where you disagree as a chance to learn more about the other viewpoint. Find areas of commonality even if you differ on the schools themselves. And here’s a tip: remember that the decision to apply to a school is separate from the decision to attend (unless a student applies in a binding early decision program). That can take some pressure off when you reach a collegiate impasse.

2. The makeup of your list
Some families will agree on the schools to be included on the list without discussing the makeup of the list itself. What are the student’s chances of admission at each school? Has your high school counselor vetted those predicted odds? Do you have at least one safety school? A financial safety school? Are you swinging for the admissions fences with a long list of reach schools or balancing your list to maximize your chances of admissions success? These are important decisions that deserve to be discussed openly and made thoughtfully. If you’d like some advice on how to do that, I’ve written two past posts, here and here, on the art of crafting a balanced college list, and another on the risks of playing the reach school lottery.

3. The family college budget
Many parents have the instinct to shield their kids from the economic realities of attending college. But I recommend that parents have honest, open discussions with their students about college costs, especially if some schools will be out of your financial reach. Financial aid and scholarships can make up the difference, but you won’t know the specifics of those packages until you apply for aid and are accepted to college. As uncomfortable as that conversation may be, having it now, however unpleasant, is much better than having it later if your student is accepted but your family can’t afford the school.

4. Your goals for the process
What would a successful college application process look like? Is it getting accepted to USC? Becoming the first in the student’s family to attend college? The student taking their first steps towards an exciting next chapter? Whatever the answer, it’s worth discovering where students and parents have agreement or conflict in this area. In fact, some parents may find that their teens are placing far more weight on factors they cannot entirely control—like the admissions decisions—than parents are. What a wonderful opportunity for parents to remind their students that their love is unconditional no matter which colleges say yes.

5. The family application plan
Regular readers know that I recommend students drive their own college application process. Whether or not a family embraces that approach, it’s worth discussing the family application plan. What will your respective roles be? Who will do what? How often will parents check on application progress? It’s much easier to have this discussion now, when you can agree on an approach that works for both student and parent, than to tackle it in the midst of application conflict when one or more parties are saying, “I thought you were taking care of that!” And here’s a past post with my recommended division of college application labor.