If the application had one prompt

Students, imagine for a moment your college applications consisted of only one prompt:

Submit letters of recommendation, as many as you’d like, from people who can tell us how you helped, supported, encouraged, or otherwise positively impacted them and their lives during your high school years. Bear in mind that when we read these letters, specific examples tend to resonate more than vague generalities do.

If you could put together a strong application with just that one prompt, you’d have a lot to show for how you spent your time in high school (and how others were impacted by it). And you’d likely have plenty of compelling examples to share on any college’s application.

The human on each side

A friend of mine is searching for jobs right now, which can be a demoralizing experience made worse by events like the one he described to me this week. A recruiter scheduled an online interview for my friend with the manager making the hire. But the manager neither accepted nor declined the scheduling request. So the recruiter’s recommended solution was to show up online anyway just in case the manager arrived.

What message does that send to an applicant? How does that make someone more likely to accept a future job with the company, which is ostensibly the purpose of good recruiting? And most importantly, how would that recruiter—and the manager—feel if the same thing happened to their significant other, son or daughter, or best friend?

My guess is that they would not be so casual about devaluing someone’s time if they knew the someone whose time was being devalued.

The college or job application, the online chat with tech support, the phone call to customer service–there’s always a human being on each side of those exchanges. The more they treat each other like the humans they are, the better the experience, and likely the outcome, will be.

When to ditch the strategy

For college applicants awaiting decisions (and their parents waiting in the respective wings), here are some behaviors that will result in admission guarantees:

  • Worrying (or talking excessively) about the impending outcome
  • Attempting to predict the result
  • Second-guessing your essays or application approaches
  • Reinforcing in your mind that only one school will make you happy
  • Comparing your accomplishments to those of other applicants in an attempt to gauge your chances

Each action is guaranteed to have absolutely no impact on the outcome itself. And they’ll almost certainly inject more anxiety into your wait.

If a strategy is guaranteed not to work, ditch the strategy.

Team success is your success

In the last decade, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team has made ten straight Final Four appearances and taken home six titles (including an NCAA unprecedented four in a row). But head coach Geno Auriemma doesn’t look for or reward individual superstars. He evaluates the players based on their contributions to the team. No matter how great a player may be, if their play proves they’re out for themselves at the expense of the team, they won’t get in the game. In fact, Geno expects players to contribute even while on the bench. As he relayed in this interview:

“I’d rather lose than watch kids play the way some kids play…They’re always thinking about themselves. Me, me, me, me. I didn’t score, so why should I be happy? I’m not getting enough minutes, why should I be happy? So when I watch game film, I’m checking what’s going on on the bench. If somebody is asleep over there, if somebody doesn’t care, if somebody’s not engaged in the game, they will never get in the game. Ever.”

There’s a growing body of research proving that those who reach the highest levels of success, from athletics to business to science, are those who make contributions to their respective teams, who care more about the goals of the group than they do their own individual aspirations. The more people you help reach their goals, the more likely you are to achieve yours.

Best of all, this isn’t a strategy reserved for superstars. You can employ it no matter what team you’re on, athletic or otherwise.

Don’t skip “How can I help?”

Counselors and parents, if a student presents you with a challenge or a situation they’re facing where they don’t know what to do, it’s tempting to jump in and offer solutions.

“I want to take AP Chem and orchestra, but they’re offered in the same period.”

“My parents want me to apply to their alma mater, but I don’t want to go there.”

“I didn’t make the volleyball team and there are no other activities that interest me.”

You (think) you know the answer. You’re ready to dish out the advice it seems they desperately need. But before you solve their problem, take a minute to understand what they think the problem is. Ask questions. Get more detail. Gently get to the heart of what they’re thinking, feeling, and facing.

And once you’ve got a clear sense of that, then ask, “How can I help?”

Now, here’s the key. You don’t necessarily need to agree to whatever they request. If your student says, “I want you to call the counselor and demand that they rearrange the school schedule so I can take both classes this semester,” that’s likely not a request you’ll want to honor.

But there’s a subtle art behind this question: it makes the asker take ownership. They need to think through the issue, assess where they need help, and then ask (or not ask) for it.

You’re not jumping in uninvited. You’re not preemptively solving a problem you weren’t asked to solve. You’re not removing the opportunity for them to learn, to spot their own solutions, or to assess what kind of help they need or don’t need.

You’re just asking, “How can I help?”

The question is important. Don’t skip it.

A token apology with the right token

Regular readers know that I’m a fan—and a customer—of the company Basecamp. In November, their software went down for the longest period of downtime in company history. And in this episode of their podcast (you can access other ways to listen at the podcast’s main site), their CTO, David Heinemeier Hansson, details how they responded, communicated with, and ultimately apologized to their customers.

Hansson points out that when you let a customer down, you have two tokens available to you: 1) This is a huge deal, and 2) This isn’t that big of a deal. When you grab the first token, the odds increase substantially that the customer will grab the second token.

Basecamp has hundreds of thousands of paying customers. When the software was down for an entire day, only one customer expressed outright anger (turns out they were in fact deeply affected). And many others wrote in expressing their support, understanding, and devotion to the product.

You don’t have to be in business to use this approach. The next time you let someone down, take the right token and see what happens.

Open the door, or close it?

In the last 10 days, we’ve received over 300 applications for open positions we’re currently recruiting for at Collegewise. With that many applications, we have to turn away a lot more people than we can hire or even interview. And we think applicants who show an interest in us deserve to be treated with respect, especially if they really take the time to put together a thoughtful cover letter to help us get to know them. Applying for jobs can be a demoralizing experience for even the most intrepid job-seeker, and it’s important to remember that there’s always a person behind the paper.

Still, it’s interesting to see how some people respond to an email telling them we will not be offering them a position. Many reply and thank us for the update, citing how many jobs they’ve applied for and never heard anything back. Some express their disappointment and understanding, along with a sincere desire to be considered again if the right opportunity were to arise. And some tell us what a mistake we’re making. One applicant last spring responded to a personal email explaining why he wasn’t selected with only, “Whatever man. Your loss.”

When someone responds like that, what are they hoping will happen?

I’m not suggesting they’re a bad person or even that they’re wrong. Maybe we are making a mistake. Maybe we should have offered them a position. Hiring is an imperfect science and even the best process can’t guarantee you’ll get every decision right.

But a reply like that shuts the door. The conversation is over. What reason do we have to come back to them in the future, or to pass along a referral for another opportunity, or reach out and reconnect at a conference? We’re not holding grudges, we’re just taking the signal that this person is done with us. If that’s the intention of the reply, message received.

There’s no right or wrong here, and I don’t expect anyone to pat us on the back after we say no. But everyone deserves to find a job where they can be happy and successful, and it’s important to be intentional about which doors you close, and which you leave open.

Private counselors, how do you respond when a family chooses a competitor over you?

Students, how do you respond when you aren’t selected for a team, class or leadership position?

Colleges, what do you say to the student who informs you they’ve accepted another school’s offer of admission?

Your response to a no has an effect, one that can either close the door or keep it open. Before you respond to a no, decide what you’d like to happen with the door.

 

The relaxed roommate strategy

My college community was one in which everyone moved at least twice a year. Whether you lived in a dorm, an apartment, or a rented house, the majority of leases lasted from September to June, at which point you’d have to locate summer housing only to move yet again in the fall to start the cycle again. My roommate Sean got so tired of it that he completely abandoned any semblance of packing for a move and just threw all of his belongings in garbage bags while chanting the mantra, “Get in and get out, Kev!”

For some of us, impending moves were a recurring source of stress. Months before you reserved your U-Haul, you had to align yourself with future roommates, agree on a budget, search for a residence, and lock everything down lest you were left to live in your car or to move home. I’ll admit that I was in the stressed camp. I spent just as much time worrying about housing as I did actually looking for it.

But other students never seemed to worry about it too much. They didn’t wrangle roommates. They didn’t search for houses. They didn’t imagine all the worst-case scenarios that hadn’t actually happened yet. They’d just settle into a Zen-like comfort, somehow assured that everything would work out OK.

And magically, they always found a place to live.

Yes, those relaxed kids didn’t always end up in the perfect scenario, but neither did the relentless planners. And while the easy-going campers often benefitted from the work of those of us in the stressed camp, they were just as frequently the saviors, the ones who still were uncommitted when someone else desperately needed another roommate.

I wouldn’t suggest that any student sit back and wait for other people to handle your college planning for you. It’s your future and it deserves to reside in your hands. But worrying is rarely a useful strategy, whether or not you’re a planner.

For those of you worrying about every potential outcome that hasn’t happened, obsessing over elements that are not in your control, injecting anxiety into areas of your life to such a degree that it permeates the otherwise restful or fun time you should be enjoying, maybe you could take a page out of the relaxed roommate’s book?

Planning might change the outcome, but worrying almost never does.

Tardiness vs. timeliness

We like to be on time at Collegewise. It’s something we expect from our colleagues, our students, and ourselves. We even talk about it in the “Culture, values, and unwritten rules” section of our employee handbook:

“Timeliness is Wise. Be on time. To everything. Don’t leave a family waiting in your office or on a Skype appointment because there was “so much traffic.” Don’t roll in five minutes late to a meeting with your team because the line at the coffee shop was too long. If you struggle with punctuality, here’s a system: (1) consider what you would do if there were a million-dollar cash prize at stake based on your on-time arrival; (2) whatever you answered for #1, do that.”

When you’re late, there are multiple prices paid. You’re paying with your reputation, and whoever is left waiting is paying with their time. Not everything has or needs a hard start time in life or at Collegewise. If someone throws a barbecue and says, “Come over around noon,” no reasonable person expects you to be knocking on the door at 11:59. But it’s not hard to tell the difference between a time that’s intentionally soft and a specific time that’s a mutual agreement in principle. If the message you send to the world is that you’re chronically late, the world will respond accordingly and decide you’re not as reliable as you could be.

I really enjoyed Seth Godin’s recent post, “Good intentions (how to be on time),” because he not only gives late-comers the benefit of the doubt by assuming they don’t actually want to be late, but he also helps them think about the factors leading to their tardiness and offers some steps to address the problem.

Self-starting

It’s hard to imagine a group, team, or project that doesn’t benefit from a self-starter, someone who sees an opportunity and then steps up.

  • What needs to get done?
  • What’s broken and needs to be fixed?
  • What could be improved and made even better?
  • What opportunities are waiting?

Self-starting doesn’t always mean you have to do it by yourself. But starting, whether it’s the idea or the action, almost always starts with one person. And you don’t need a leadership position, authority, or an invitation. You just need yourself and the willingness to start.

Imagine how your future college application might change with a little more self-starting.