Start with an audience of one

That email you’re writing…
That website you’re building…
That flyer you’re creating…
That brochure copy you’re penning…
That t-shirt you’re designing…

Who’s it for?

It’s a good question to ask, and a good person to envision, as you’re making it.

When I sit down to write a blog post, I try to envision exactly who it’s for. Not “parents,” or “students,” or “counselors”—that’s too broad. I want to imagine the one person out there who’s most likely to read and share it.

The parent of a nice B student who’d like some reassurance that there are plenty of great colleges out there for her child, too.

The over-achieving student who needs a reminder that the work will pay off no matter which colleges say yes.

The high school counselor who wants to alert her large caseload of families about upcoming changes in the financial aid process.

Of course, each of those posts will probably appeal to more than one person. But they won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s OK. If it’s good enough, the person each post is written for will share it with people in their tribe who think and act similarly.

It’s impossible to make something that everyone will like. But pleasing one specific person is an attainable goal.

And if your answer to “Who’s it for?” is, “This isn’t for anyone—it’s just for me,” then you’ve got a willing audience of one—yourself! So go make yourself happy with your art, writing, music, reading, learning, etc. and let all the other potential audiences go.

The path to the most receptive audience starts with an audience of one.

Find the “Yes” in assignments

My neighbors—both full-time working parents—have a daughter in kindergarten. While visiting their house this week, I watched as their five-year-old sat patiently at the dinner table while her mother painstakingly crafted a stack of valentines.

Apparently, the kindergarten class’s forthcoming Valentine’s Day celebration came with the following requirements. Not only did the students need to bring individual Valentine’s Day cards for every student in the class, but the cards were also mandated to be:

Inscribed with personal messages complimenting each individual student.

And the school had just announced those requirements the week of the celebration.

I’m not an expert in kindergarten-level skills, but what five-year-old could actually create and produce customized cards for 25 students without significant parent involvement? As her mother calmly but frustratingly put it:

“This is pretty much a homework assignment for the parents.”

I understand the thinking behind the assignment. No student should feel left out on Valentine’s Day if the class is going to celebrate. It’s a nice sentiment for each student to express something positive about each of their classmates. And there’s nothing wrong with projects that kindergarten kids and their parents can work on together. That comes with the parenting job.

But this five-year-old, who apparently loves Valentine’s Day by the way, was bored and ready to move on no matter how much her mother created and encouraged opportunities to participate in the project. It had been several hours already and the project had long lost its appeal.

I write often here about the need for parents of high school kids to step back, to give your kids the space to do for themselves those things they’re capable of doing without your help. Those parents who continuously hover, manage, and otherwise run their kids’ lives aren’t preparing them for the independence of college.

But this Valentine’s Day card mandate reminded me that even well-intentioned parents might be trained early in their kids’ schooling to get involved because that seems to be what’s expected. If the assignments for your five-year-old require you to manage or even to complete them, how is a parent supposed to recognize when that involvement is no longer necessary when the assignments only get more advanced and more time-consuming as kids progress through school?

And even more troubling, why wouldn’t kids continue to expect or even depend on their parents’ help if the standard is set so early?

My best advice for parents: With each project, ask yourself if this is something your student can do. Then adapt your role to accommodate the “Yes.” Give them as much room or opportunity as you can to do the parts they’re able to complete, even if it means the end result won’t be perfect.

My advice for teachers and schools is largely the same. With each assignment, ask yourself, “Is this something a student can do?” If your answer is “Yes,” including one that will challenge kids to reach a little higher than they might think they can, give them a chance to learn, grow, and surprise themselves.

But if the answer is “No,” if your instincts and experience tell you that the assignment will rely more on parents than it does students, change the assignment until you find the “Yes.”

Reach the carrots by ignoring them

Author Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which is also nicely summarized in his 20-minute TED Talk, argues that the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t lead to long-term motivation. Telling someone, “If you do this, you’ll get this” works for simple, rote tasks. But for 21st century jobs requiring creative thinking and innovation, the extrinsic motivators like money and authority are actually less effective than three intrinsic motivators:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: The desire to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Too many families approach the high school years using the carrot-and-stick approach to college prep.

If you do this: take hard classes, get good grades, study for the SAT, do community service, take leadership positions, etc.

You’ll get this: admission to a prestigious college.

Given the science that supports Pink’s argument, it’s no surprise that this approach fails far too often in one of two ways: (1) Kids do what they were told to do but still don’t get into their dream college, or (2) kids just can’t find the motivation and won’t engage in their college prep.

What if families took a different approach and focused their college prep on autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

Find the subjects and activities that appeal most to you. Work hard to engage and excel where your strengths naturally fit. And do all those things not just because they’ll help you get into college, but because they’ll also make you smarter, happier, more fulfilled, and ultimately more successful in whatever you decide to pursue.

Pink isn’t arguing that the path to motivation is to do only what you want to do whenever you want to do it. We all have responsibilities at school, at work, and/or at home that deserve our attention. And there’s nothing wrong with having aspirations and working hard to achieve them.

But motivation isn’t an unlimited resource. It needs to be refueled occasionally. And the promise of just-do-this-and-you’ll-get-this won’t refill the tank. There are plenty of things worth learning and worth doing. Students might do well to follow their internal motivators, the ones that draw them towards their natural interests and talents. Listen to those intuitions, put the work in to master them, and connect them to a greater purpose of becoming a better human being.

Do that over and over again, and you’ll be a lot more likely to reach those carrots, too.

Prove the yes’s right

We’re hiring for a number of positions at Collegewise right now, all of which have generated dozens (and dozens) of applications of interest. Some are easy no’s, especially for those people who don’t read our post all the way through, don’t follow directions, and don’t seem to care enough to do more than send the same recycled cover letter and resume. But many more come from highly qualified, interesting, compelling people who could almost certainly make great contributions here. They took the time to get to know us. They cared enough to put together personal materials to show us how and why they’d be a good fit here. They gave thoughtful, honest answers to our interview questions, and asked equally good questions in return.

If we had 5, 10, or 20 positions open, I’d hire many of them. But given the comparatively small number of available positions, in the end, we have to say no to most qualified people who apply. It’s one of the few parts of my job I don’t like.

We’re very good at hiring at Collegewise. We’ve built a process that, from the first read of our “help wanted” ad, all the way to the formal job offer, tends to attract the best fits and repel those who just wouldn’t like working here. We’ve learned how to evaluate materials, how to ask questions that reveal someone’s talents, motivations, and personalities, and how to go with our guts to pick people who will do great things here and make everyone proud to work with them. We’re almost always right about who we pick.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t wrong about the people we don’t pick.

A decision to hire one person is also many decisions not to hire other people. The answer to whether or not we made a good “yes” choice reveals itself. Working with them, watching them in action, seeing them fulfill all the potential we saw in them—it’s a confirmation that we made a good choice.

But we don’t get to confirm those choices we made about people we didn’t hire. We know they’re going to go on to do great things someplace else. But we’ll never know just how great they could have been here.

People are complex. That’s why selecting them—for jobs, for dating, and yes, for college admissions, is not an exact, infallible science. You can look for the right things. You can evaluate thoroughly and thoughtfully. You can give yourself the best chance of making a “yes” choice you’ll be happy about. But even the best systems don’t guarantee you’ll be right about who you pick, or who you don’t pick.

Most admissions offices do a very good job of evaluating their applicants. They’re as thorough as time and opportunity allows them to be. They try to be reasonable and fair with every application. They genuinely want to admit not just the students who are qualified, but also those who are most likely to be happy and to thrive in that college’s particular environment. And they’re usually proven right about who they pick.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right about who they don’t pick. Selective colleges can’t take everyone who applies. Many yes’s will be right, and many no’s will be wrong. The only difference is that the colleges each get to see how their yes’s play out. The no’s will play out somewhere else, likely at another college that had the good fortune and good sense to say yes.

For seniors who are receiving decisions from your colleges, remember that a no doesn’t necessarily mean they made the right choice with you (or the wrong choice with one of their yes’s). It just means that they made a series of difficult choices they had to make.

It might not always seem fair. It might not always seem to make sense. But remember that one college’s decision to say no is also your opportunity to prove one of your yes’s right.

Feeling pressured to commit before May 1?

Senior families, are your acceptance letters implying—or outright stating—that waiting until May 1 to commit could somehow have adverse implications, like being left out of classes, housing, or special programs? If so, please read this past post, Do you really have until May 1 to decide? (Spoiler alert: as long as you didn’t apply in a binding admissions program, yes, you do have until May 1.) I’ve updated the links and the screenshot to include the most recent language from the policies governing colleges’ behavior in these areas.

It’s a big decision. You can’t buy more time past the deadline (which I address in the aforementioned post). But if you need time, don’t let anyone, least of all the colleges themselves, pressure you into making a decision sooner than the rules allow.

What classes should you take?

Now that many high school students are about to begin selecting courses they’ll take next fall, the folks at Challenge Success have just released their Tips for Making Wise Choices. It’s aimed at parents who want to encourage their students to choose courses that won’t just prepare them for college, but also leave them engaged and challenged without burning them out.

Here’s a past post with some of my own course selection advice.

Another with a reminder to challenge yourself sanely.

And two final posts, here and here, with specific tips for rising seniors (class of 2018).

When you don’t believe

In a “fit of passion,” a high school teacher in the high-performing Palo Alto Unified School District in California’s Silicon Valley penned this piece, Kids With a 3.1 GPA: It’s an Honor to Write a College Recommendation Letter For You. And I enjoyed the encouragement for those students who don’t always set the curve.

“You might want to see some of the ways I describe students like you to college admissions officers: fiercely creative, independent, the opposite of ‘doing school,’ original, citizen of his community, would hire her in a minute, passionate learner. Are you surprised by these superlatives? I imagine you might be, since our system has told you that your GPA, your battle with depression, your loss of interest in rote work makes you a loser. Those kids in your class stressing about their early decisions at Northwestern University? You check your texts and wonder if your grandmother will like her glassblowing gift.”

I don’t have any problem lauding the kids who work hard, achieve stellar GPAs and test scores, and focus on gaining admission to a college of their choice. They’ve demonstrated a lot of the skills that it will take to be successful in life (which is exactly why their future success won’t be determined by whether that college of their choice says yes). It’s not easy to do these things, especially for a teenager. They deserve the credit they get.

But while the pressure of the college admissions process often directs praise to the highest achievers, it also sends some pretty damaging and inaccurate messages to those who aren’t at the top of the class.

You’re not good enough.
You’re not bound for greatness.
You’re average—your dreams should be, too.

It’s important for all levels of achievers to remember that high school—and the college admissions process—measures your ability to succeed in a limited arena, with limited instruments, for a limited time. Grades, test scores, admissions decisions, even letters of recommendation–none of those things predict with anything near certainty whether or not you will be successful later in life.

So if you aren’t setting the curve, if you don’t hold a regular spot on the awards stage, if high school hasn’t been your time to shine, remember that you’re not going to be in high school forever. Think about where you could be more successful, and what you would do differently in those circumstances. Try to channel some of that gumption into where you are today (success takes practice, so why not start now?). And most importantly, remember that there are people like this teacher who believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself.

Truth, or nothing at all

I called a customer service line today and was greeted with an automated message that said,

“Thanks for calling_____, where delighting the customer at every interaction is our goal, because that’s what we do at ______!”

30 seconds later, a robot voice told me, “Extension 202 is not available. Leave a message.”

Is there any universe where that interaction delights somebody?

What’s the point of making that statement if you’re not going to make every effort to actually do it? You’re setting yourself up to disappoint, and you’re setting your customer up to be disappointed.

Private counselors, schools, and colleges, what would happen if you were audited to substantiate the statements you make on your website, promotional materials, or outbound recordings?

It’s tempting for businesses and other organizations to write or say what will sound impressive, compelling, or interesting. But those statements fall apart when the actions that follow don’t support them.

Better to have those statements tell the truth. Or remove them entirely and say nothing at all.

Where the good parts are waiting

Imagine if you’d spent three-and-a-half years of nearly full-time preparation to secure a date to the senior prom with one particular person. It would be almost impossible not to feel enormous gravity on the day you finally make the ask.

All the work and focus and dedication has come to this. Your friends are watching. Your family is watching. It’s finally here. No turning back now. Will it be a yes or no?

Of course, while the intensity of that drama will peak on that day, it will diminish every day after that. If you get a yes, you go to the prom together. If you get a no, you go to the prom with someone else. The drama of that one day is incongruous with the event itself. Getting a yes or no to the prom isn’t the same as getting a yes or no to whether or not you’ll receive a life-saving kidney transplant. But all the build-up sure can make it feel that way.

The day the decision from your dream college arrives is not unlike this.

Yes, your college education has a lot more long-term life consequences than your prom does. But when you’ve spent three years dreaming—and working toward the goal—of attending one school (or a short list of schools), the day that decision arrives will carry enormous gravity, especially given how many people close to you will want to know the answer, too.

But believe it or not, decision day will eventually prove to have been (almost) just another day. Whether your dream school says yes or no, the story that college will eventually hold in your life won’t be about this day at all. It will be about everything that happened next, how you went to that dream school—or how you found an even better fit someplace else–how you made new friends, how you found your calling, how you overcame unforeseen challenges, and how you learned and grew and had fun for four years.

Seniors, parents of seniors, and friends of those seniors, as decisions roll in, please try to remember that decision day is not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of one. And what happens next is where all the good parts are waiting.

Guidelines for emailing colleges

As juniors begin their college searches in earnest, it’s likely that you’ll have questions as you explore potential schools. And given that many (if not most) colleges will share an email address (usually monitored by the admissions office) where you can send questions, it’s important to remember that there are real people reading your inquiries so that you don’t inadvertently annoy the same people who may later read your application. So here are a few guidelines to start—and keep—you on the right email footing.

Please start with this past post about how to write a good email message. The advice applies to pretty much any email you write to someone who isn’t necessarily a friend or family member.

Then read this one with some more specific advice for emailing colleges.

Those two posts will tell you just about everything you need to know to write what will likely be a refreshingly good email message, and to avoid common mistakes.

But here’s one more tip—please respect their time.

Don’t ask a long list of 10, 12, or 20 questions. I often receive emails like this from people who are considering applying for a job at Collegewise, and it feels like I’m being asked to complete a homework assignment. If you have a question—or two, or maybe even three—ask them. But don’t turn your email into a written interrogation.

Also, try to ask questions that a person who has likely never met you could feasibly answer. Admissions officers know a lot about their colleges, but they likely know nothing about you. That’s why “Would it be better for me to major in biology or physics?” will likely be almost impossible for an admissions officer to answer responsibly. But, “If I would like to double major in biology and physics, would it be appropriate to indicate that on my application?” is a question that’s right in their wheelhouse.

My intention here is not to scare any student off from emailing a college. Don’t worry—you’d have to write something pretty inappropriate, offensive, or scary to actually damage your chances of admission with one or two emails.

But a student who (1) ignores these guidelines, and (2) does so over and over and over again will start to make a bad name for him or herself in the admissions office.