Frequently asked college search questions

Certain college-related questions pop up nearly every time I speak to a crowd of high school students and parents. Last week, my business partner, Paul, and I shared the stage at a Southern California high school, and every one of those recurring questions came up. Since they’ve proven to be top-of-mind for families going through the process, here are links to past posts that address these frequently asked college search questions.

I keep hearing that there is a lot of money out there in scholarships. How do we get those?

Here’s the truth, and here’s how to improve your chances.

How do I figure out which schools are right for me?

Start with 10 not-so-easy questions, look here for inspiration, remember to match colleges to you, and don’t forget that affordability is part of fit.

What if I don’t know what I want to major in?

Consider what you’d like to learn more about, and don’t be afraid to apply (to the right schools) as an undecided major.

Can my sport help me get into college?

There are two ways it can help, and there are two important questions to ask yourself.

We know someone [who we hope can leverage some influence]. Will that help?

Very rarely, but here’s how to tell.

Don’t let someone hijack your morning mood

According to researcher and author Michelle Gielan, checking email first thing in the morning can ruin your entire day. Psychologically, just one negative email, even if it’s offset by plenty of positive messages, can color your outlook and lead you to report having a bad day even hours later. If you’ve ever started your morning by reading a snarky comment, an angry message, or an announcement of bad news, you’ve probably experienced that emotional hangover that can linger.

Everyone, from students to parents to counselors, has to process more incoming communication than any generation before. You probably can’t get away from email negativity entirely. But why take the risk of letting just one message hijack your morning mood? We all might be better off starting our days on our own terms.


I needed to reserve a meeting room for a training I’ll be holding for Collegewisers in Seattle. So I went online and tried to use a popular workspace rental company. Before I clicked “Get a Quote,” I decided to click on the “Terms and Conditions” just to see what I was agreeing to.

Among other things, just asking how much a room costs meant that I was agreeing to:

  • receive telephone calls and text messages, even if I’m on a Do-Not-Call list
  • receive telephone calls for the purpose of marketing
  • receive e-mails
  • receive phone calls placed by an automatic telephone number dialing system
  • receive telephone communications containing pre-recorded messages
  • receive calls from contractors and third-party companies

I can’t imagine someone willingly agreeing to that arrangement, which is exactly why the company hides it, makes it the potential customer’s responsibility to unearth it, and then tricks people into agreeing to it.

Imagine how absurd this would be in our personal lives.

Thanks for asking me to go out on a date with you. If you had taken the time to learn about my terms and conditions, you’d know that you’ve now given me permission to call, text, or email you whenever I feel like it even if you start dating someone else. You’ve also agreed to let my friends, relatives, and even a computer call you on my behalf. And sometimes it won’t even be a real person calling—just a recording of something I, not you, think is important. And you’ve agreed to let me keep doing those things until you fill out a form expressly telling me to stop (at which point I’ll gladly comply in 5-7 business days).

Sound ridiculous? Maybe even a little underhanded and creepy? Yes, and that’s the point.

Spam has become so rampant that too many businesses, colleges, and organizations seem to just accept that it’s OK to engage it. But that’s the classic “Everybody’s doing it!” argument. Your customers deserve better than this. You deserve better than this. Any campaign or tactic that tricks people into doing something is only going to make it harder for them to trust you in the future.

“Transparency” is one of those business clichés that’s completely lost its oomph. But the sentiment is still a good one. Would your business, school, or organization be proud to stand up and say publicly, “Here’s what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it”? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track. But if the answer is no, and even worse, if it’s something you’d feel compelled to hide, that’s a good reason to reconsider.

Five lessons from effective executives

Peter Drucker has been called the inventor of modern management. His formative book, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, was first published in 1966. While the language is noticeably dated (the book only refers to executives as men), it’s surprising how relevant the ideas presented still are today.

Here are five traits the book identifies in effective executives that I think could apply to just about any college-bound high school student.

1. They value their own time.
Effective executives understand that time is their most precious resource. And as much as possible, they want to make conscious, informed decisions about how they spend it. The forthcoming lessons discuss more about how they do this, but Drucker raises this point early on to make the case that effectiveness can be learned, and must be intentional. Effective executives don’t just show up for work and hope to have something to show for it by the end of the day.

Related to valuing their time, I also loved what Drucker had to say about meetings.

“Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time…An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.”

2. They constantly ask, “What can I contribute?”
In every situation, task, or crisis, effective executives want to make important contributions. The more they contribute, the more valuable and effective they are. To make the most of their time, they only want to do something if they can bring real value to it. And they measure that value by the quality and quantity of their contributions.

3. They focus on strengths, not weaknesses.
Effective executives want to maximize strengths—both their own and those of their coworkers. They understand that spending time trying to improve a weakness rarely yields as much benefit as putting a top strength to work on a well-matched opportunity.

They also understand that even the best executives and employees have weaknesses.

“The idea that there are ‘well-rounded’ people, people who have only strengths and no weaknesses…is a prescription for mediocrity if not for incompetence. Strong people always have strong weaknesses too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys. And no one is strong in many areas.”

4. They direct their time to areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.
Effective executives don’t just want to get things done; they want to get the right things done. They consciously choose to spend time doing things that will yield the best, most important results. And those results are a lot more important to them than just being “busy.”

5. They understand the importance of having uninterrupted, focused time.
A scattered, multi-tasking executive is not an effective executive. Important work deserves focused time without interruption. As Drucker describes it,

“To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, therefore needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks…To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours…To write a report may, for instance, require six or eight hours, at least for the first draft. It is pointless to give seven hours to the task by spending fifteen minutes twice a day for three weeks. All one has at the end is blank paper with some doodles on it.”

A high school student may not be a business titan. But you make decisions every day about what to do and how to do it. If you can be effective when you make those choices, you are also far more likely to be successful.

Can seniors afford to slack off?

I’ve gotten several requests from parent readers to pen a post about the importance of keeping senior year grades up. The last time I touched on this topic, today’s seniors were just high school freshmen. So here’s the link to that past post, Seniors: Keep up the good work, which explains how maintaining your academic performance can help you get admitted, and then stay admitted.

I recognize, too, that many high-achieving seniors have had their feet on the academic and extracurricular gas pedals for years at a pace that really would be unsustainable for most adults. Rising before 7, going to school all day, doing activities in the afternoon, and studying until past midnight—it can take a physical, mental, and emotional toll. If that sounds like a familiar pattern, please remember a few things that I hope you’ll find encouraging.

First, this type of demanding schedule is primarily a high school phenomenon. College will not be like this. Most jobs are not like this. That sentiment may not bring immediate relief. But difficult circumstances are easier to bear when you know they are temporary.

The ambition and work ethic that you’re demonstrating now are also the surest signs that you’re bound for success in life. These traits will remain in your life even when this level of daily demands does not. Please remember that, no matter which colleges say yes.

And finally, if you really are feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up, please consider speaking with your high school counselor. Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor writes in The Happiness Advantage that “verbalizing the stress and helplessness you are feeling is the first step towards regaining control” [of stress]. And more importantly, cases of anxiety and depression are increasingly common for high school kids. Whether you’re dealing with stress or something more serious, your counselor will be able to help you.

How to give better answers to frequently asked questions

Since entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers sold his company, CD Baby, in 2008 for $22M, he’s been inviting—and happily answering—questions over email about business, productivity, and life. After answering a total of 192,000 emails from 78,000 people, Sivers finally announced at the close of 2016 that he was no longer taking questions. But he left his readers and fans with this FAQ page, which I found interesting for two reasons.

1. His FAQs are about the askers, not the answerer.
Too many FAQ sections are actually just promotional material masquerading as frequently requested answers. I’ve never once had a student ask, “What year was College X founded?” Yet I’ve seen that supposed frequently asked question pop up on multiple colleges’ FAQ sections. The same can be said of “What is Y Corporation’s mission?” or “What accolades has Individual Z received?” Sivers isn’t promoting himself at all—in fact, many of the answers really just decline offers for speaking, investing, interviews, etc. Instead, he seems to have chosen the 21 questions that were in fact the most frequently asked. He may be disappointing a lot of people by not personally replying with an answer, but he’s dramatically increased the likelihood that subsequent visitors will actually find the answer they’re looking for.

2. He tries to leave people better off than when they arrived.
Yes, some of his replies are just no’s—he won’t promote your product, he won’t invest in your idea, he won’t be on your podcast (for now). But far more of his responses include recommendations for his favorite book on that topic, helpful advice, or another resource to leave the visitor better off than they would have been with, “That’s too complicated to answer over email,” or even worse, no answer at all. And while the replies aren’t lengthy, I got the sense that many of those answers might be the same that he’d offer to a close friend or family member. Sivers may not be replying personally to each inquiry. But that FAQ page will allow him to help people for a long time.

If you’re a counselor, administrator, teacher, head of an organization, or anyone else who answers many of the same questions over and over again, you likely can’t just stop answering them and let an FAQ do all the work for you. But you could create an FAQ to cut down on your repeat answer performances, and even to extend your service by not making people wait for a helpful reply that could just as easily and effectively have been handled with an FAQ.

Private counselors, what if you took the most common questions potential clients ask and posted an FAQ with honest, direct, helpful answers? “How are you different from your competition?” could include links to your competitors’ websites along with a recommendation that families interview multiple counselors and choose the one that seems to be the best fit. “What type of students do you work with?” could include information not just about your typical student, but also the types of students you don’t typically serve, along with recommendations for where those kids could find good information or support. Imagine the tone this would set for a visitor who’s just arriving at your website and is already being helped before even speaking with you.

High school counselors, what if you picked the 10-20 questions you get most often and posted the most helpful, honest answers you could write, the type you would share if the parent or student were actually a relative? How well-served would your families feel, and more importantly, how much time might you get back to get other work done?

Teachers, what questions do you answer repeatedly from students and parents? You could even turn your answers into mini articles, like, “The best ways to improve your writing,” or “The five best ways to improve your grade in my class,” or “What to do if you need extra help.” Yes, you could still reply to each inquiry and personalize both the message and the advice. But you could also let the article do the work for you when it comes down to repeating the advice that you’ve shared many times before.

Colleges, I’ve even written a past post on how to improve your own FAQ sections.

Good questions deserve good answers. But it’s almost impossible to answer a particular question with the same attention and care the hundredth time as you did the first five times. When those questions cause your energy and enthusiasm to wane, consider adding that query—and the best possible reply—to your “FAQs.” You’ll give better answers, you’ll leave people better off, and you’ll have more time to answer those personal, nuanced questions that aren’t so frequently asked.

When a (low) GPA doesn’t predict future success

32-year-old Ezra Klein is the editor-in-chief of Vox, a news organization featuring articles, videos, newsletters, and podcasts that combine to reach over 100 million people each month. He was also a columnist at The Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC, and a contributor to Bloomberg. And he was named one of the 50 most powerful people in Washington by GQ.

But as he revealed recently on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, in 2002, Klein was just a kid graduating from high school with a 2.2 GPA and no real idea what he wanted to do with his life.

Klein doesn’t necessarily credit his college with his turnaround that led to such remarkable success. But he is an example of several themes I write about often here:

  • The traditional measures of success in high school did not accurately reflect his capabilities. In fact, he talks about how liberating it was to finally find areas where his strengths could be put to use.
  • He had the curiosity and initiative to pursue what he eventually discovered interested him.
  • He made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves.
  • He bounced back from failures and, in fact, today says, “The things that I wanted and didn’t get are extreme blessings.”

This podcast discussion actually had little to do with politics and far more to do with the path of Klein’s success, where he came from, how he took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, how he bounced back from failure, and who helped him along the way.

Ferriss does start the podcast with three minutes of self-promotion and sponsor pitching, which seems excessive to me. But if you’d like to hear from an honest, open, successful person who wasn’t at the top of his high school class but had a lot to offer and found a way to do so, the interview, which you can find here, is well worth a listen.

It’s not that high school classes and grades aren’t important. In fact, a student who blows off academics as unimportant is eliminating both options and opportunities. That’s a risky strategy, and not one that I’d recommend.

But Klein’s interview is a nice reminder that regardless of your GPA, who you are in high school is not necessarily a mold for who you’ll be or what you’ll become in the future.

Decisions, decisions

If you ask someone on a date and they decline, does that necessarily mean that you couldn’t have been good together? Does it mean that you have nothing to offer or that you just aren’t datable at all? No. It just means that based on the limited information on hand and the imperfect art of dating decisions, they didn’t see the fit that you saw. A confident person has to move on and embrace that clichéd but ultimately true saying that there are plenty of fish in the sea. And being a good, interesting, compelling person just increases the chances of getting a bite later.

What about the working professional who interviews for a position at a different company but doesn’t get the gig? Does that mean they weren’t qualified? Does it mean that if given a chance, they never could have done the job, maybe even as well as or better than the person who got picked? Does it mean they can’t be successful somewhere else? Of course not. Cover letters and resumes and job interviews have their limitations. Unless the company had a trial period where job-seekers could actually try the role for 3-6 months, there’s no way for a person in charge to know with absolute certainty who the right—or wrong—person is. It’s not a perfect system. And the smart, hard-working, accomplished professional has reason to keep the faith that they’ll end up at a place that’s right for them.

College admissions works the same way.

Colleges that require nothing more than transcripts and test scores are close to a meritocracy where the highest numbers win. But all those other schools that look at some combination of other things like activities, awards and honors, essays, letters of rec, or interviews are making more complex decisions. And especially at those schools that have to turn away many more applicants than they accept, deciding who gets a yes and who gets a no is difficult.

Some families think it’s random—a crapshoot at best. It’s not. In fact, admissions officers work very hard to fairly and thoroughly evaluate every applicant. But it’s a complex and sometimes imperfect process. Like dating and job-hunting, decisions that sting can be hard to take. They can feel bitterly personal. But the confident student has to believe enough in herself to know that a denial from one school is not an indictment of her accomplishments, a statement about her potential, or an indicator that she won’t be successful someplace else.

Students who are applying to college, I know it can feel intimidating and even unfair to package up your high school life into applications that could never fully encapsulate you, then leave the decisions of where you get in and don’t to people who have never met you and could never possibly understand everything about what you have to offer.

But you should keep the faith in two things.

First, remember that most admissions officers are, by nature, good people who work very hard to treat applicants with respect. They would much rather admit than deny you. And even when their realities dictate that they have to turn away students who are qualified and could absolutely do the work, they’ll make every effort to give you a fair and thorough read before they reach a decision.

And more importantly, remember that like dating, job searching, and other scenarios where other people make choices about you, they only get to control this one decision. They don’t get to control what you do next, where you do it, or whom you do it with.

Those decisions are the important ones. And those decisions are all yours.

Five unconventional ways to stand out

It’s hard to stand out in any arena doing the same things everyone else is doing. Here are five underutilized ways of standing out to colleges.

1. Learn something.
Learning isn’t limited to your school, or to academic material. Colleges, extension programs, and community centers offer classes in everything from scrapbooking to hip-hop. Books, videos, blogs—there are more places than ever before to learn whatever interests you, often on the cheap and even for free. Actively exploring—and expanding—your interests is a great way to show colleges that you love to learn and can take advantage of opportunities to do so.

2. Teach something.
Everyone is good at something that’s teachable. And like the opportunities to learn, the subjects to teach and the vehicles to do so are more varied than ever before. Offer up your particular expertise at a local community center. Create the go-to YouTube channel for people looking to learn to jazz trumpet. Write a blog on how to build websites, where to find good live bands in town, or how teens can conquer anxiety without prescription drugs. The reach of the internet means that your audience isn’t limited to your geographical location. And if you can really teach someone how to do something, chances are that someone out there in the world will find and appreciate it.

3. Share something.
Offer your basketball skills as a coach for a local youth team. Make videos for a local non-profit. One former Collegewise student who spent her Saturdays volunteering at a homeless shelter also loved photography. During her breaks, she offered to take photos of any families who wanted them, then developed and shared them with the subjects. Many of those families mentioned to her that her photos were the only family photos they owned. If you need a little more inspiration, check out how entrepreneur Derek Sivers shared his way to success using what he called the co-op business model.

4. Change something.
Does something in your club, school, or community need changing, fixing, improving? What if you did the work to make it happen? A small project might be done on your own. But a larger project might require that you recruit and lead other people who agree with you. Whether you pick up trash at the local park, paint the walls at your school, or start an informal support group for students who share the same struggle, colleges—and the world in general—are always looking for people who can make positive change happen.

5. Do something.
Have an idea that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the above categories? Go for it. Ideas are easy. And they’re just a starting point. It’s the doing that’s the hard part. Yes, planning can be important. And the more people you involve, the more important it will be to make promises you can keep. But working like crazy to do something worth doing will always earn you more credit, whether or not it actually works, than not doing anything at all. Find a way to move that idea from something you’re thinking about to something you actually do.

Wait for the end

Imagine watching 90 minutes of a dramatic movie and then walking out before finding out what happened to all the main characters.

Or reading all but the last two chapters of a mystery novel and never finding out who did it.

Would your descriptions of those tales be accurate if you didn’t know the end?

You’d talk about all the drama, angst, and mystery that built up throughout the scenes and chapters. But without the end, you’d have all the build-up and tension without resolution.

For many high school underclassmen and their families, the current seniors’ college admissions process is like a long story where you miss the end.

Who got in where, who’s going to a dream college, who was shaken by their denials—those might seem like the finale. But the admissions decisions are not the end of the story. And if you take them that way, your vision of the college admissions process will be one that’s foreboding, uncertain, and one that ends with either jubilation or heartbreak.

A year from now, those current seniors will all be returning from college for their holiday breaks. Some who went to dream colleges will have found parts of their schools that, like all schools, are not perfect. Some who attend schools that were once far down on their lists will wonder how they never realized what a great place their new home could be.

But the one commonality you’ll find is that the vast majority of them are happy where they go to college.

Sure, some will be more blissful and glowing than others. But once a student makes the transition and finds their place in college, they typically have trouble imagining themselves anyplace else.

If you want a sneak peek of the end, pay attention to those college freshmen who’ve returned to your hometown this month.

They’ll swap stories about roommates, professors, parties, football games, traditions, dorm food, majors, and everything else they’re experiencing as college freshmen. Notice not just how happy they are in college, but also how proud they are of their schools.

What they won’t be talking about: SAT scores, high school GPAs, college applications, essays, who got in where and why, and everything else that had to do with getting in. Those won’t just be earlier parts of their stories. Those parts will be ancient history.

And even if you don’t get that sneak peek, just remember that what you’re seeing now is the most dramatic part of the story. And remember that your own upcoming sequel will be a lot more appealing if you wait for the end of this one.