The work you do along the way

A good blog post today from my favorite marketing author, Seth Godin, about the relentless pursuit of specific goals.  It got me thinking about students who relentlessly pursue a goal to gain admission to a highly selective college. 

It's risky to measure your success by whether or not Stanford says "Yes," because they reject most of their applicants.  That's giving too much power to someone else. 

What's broken in college admissions isn't necessarily the fact that
kids are working hard; what's broken is that too many kids (and a lot
of parents) only find value in the work if the chosen college offers
admission.  There's a reason why those who are rejected from their dream schools aren't relegated to substandard lives.  The work you do to be a competitive college applicant means you're smart, dedicated, and willing to work hard.  Those traits will make you successful no matter where you go to college.  Whether or not your dream school admits you, there's value in the work you do along the way.

Expert opinions?

If I want to get stronger, I ask a trainer at the gym for advice.  But when my arm hurts more than it should after working out, I don't ask the personal trainer to take a look at it.  That's a job for a doctor.  And what kind of shoes should I wear when I run?  That's a question I reserve for one of those sprinters at the running shoe store who weighs 95 pounds and has a body fat percentage of negative 12%. 

The fact that training and injury and running occur as part of the same fitness regimen doesn't mean they aren't three very different things.  College admissions works in much the same way.  

One of our Collegewise parents attended a free seminar over the weekend given by a test prep company.  In addition to discussing SAT test-taking strategies (which were great), the presenter also shared a variety of information about how colleges use test scores.  And virtually all of it was incorrect.

College admissions, standardized testing and financial aid for college are three entirely different fields.  Expertise in one does not translate to expertise in another.  I'm not saying people can't be knowledgeable about all three.  But most people aren't (I claim an admissions expertise but am an admitted dabbler in testing and financial aid).

The widespread availability of college admissions, testing and financial aid information means that families have to be a little bit discerning about who you listen to.  Seek out trusted sources, and don't be surprised if you turn to more than one expert.

If you need a little direction, here's where I'd start for admissions, testing, and financial aid advice.

Rejected by your dream school? You’re in good company

From a great piece
in
yesterday's Wall Street Journal about college rejection letters and the people who've received them:

"Teenagers who face rejection will be joining good company, including
Nobel laureates, billionaire philanthropists, university presidents,
constitutional scholars, best-selling authors and other leaders of
business, media and the arts who once received college or
graduate-school rejection letters of their own."

According to the article, Warren Buffet had this to say about his college rejection from Harvard:

"The truth is, everything that has happened in my life[…] that I thought was a crushing event at the time, has turned out for the better," Mr. Buffett says. With the exception of health problems, he says, setbacks teach "lessons that carry you along. You learn that a temporary defeat is not a permanent one. In the end, it can be an opportunity."

And for the parents reading, Buffet remembers how his father responded to the rejection.

"As it turned out, his father responded with 'only this unconditional love…an unconditional belief in me…'"

Meant to be

Most kids feel like they're attending the college they were meant to attend.  Some just take a little longer to realize it than others.

Several years ago, I was invited back to my alma mater, UC-Irvine, as the keynote speaker at the freshman orientation program.  In the audience were several hundred new freshmen and their parents.  I wanted to grab their attention, so I decided to cut to the chase say,

“You know, I’ll bet a lot of you really wanted to go to UCLA.”

It got a good laugh, but a few months earlier when the rejection letters from UCLA arrived home, they probably wouldn't have found it that funny.

So I told them the truth. When I was eighteen, I sat in those very same seats and knew that I really wanted to be about 40 miles north in Westwood.  So did a lot of my fellow freshmen.  I told them that it had been that way at UCI for a long time and that, while every year, more and more freshman pick UCI as their first choice, an equal number really wanted to be Bruins.

Then I gave them the good news.

I told them that they just faced the largest and most competitive applicant pool in UCI’s history to get there and that they should feel proud to be sitting in that room.   I reminded them that after one quarter on UCI’s campus, none of the freshmen would be talking about UCLA anymore.  In fact, I made a promise that, at the end of the orientation weekend when they prepared to move into their new dorms, none of them were going to be thinking about UCLA anymore.  Most kids end up at the right schools, and whether they knew it not, they were meant to be at UC-Irvine.

I told them that it was time for them to start making the most of the next four years, and that their college careers started "today."

Nearly five hundred new freshmen and their parents smiled collectively, let out a deep breath and applauded (which is admittedly great for a public speaker like me with an ego the size of a small planet). 

There is no better feeling than seeing several hundred new college freshmen smiling, excited, and eager to embark on their four-year college adventure.  And that same look will be on the faces of most of the college freshmen at over 2,500 colleges across the country this fall. 

Kids, for the most part, like where they go to college.   Sure, not everybody gets admitted to his first choice, but when you put a college freshman in a place with a bunch of fellow eighteen year-olds and tell him that all he has to do is learn and have fun for four years, it’s amazing how fast a kid forgets about whether or not he got into his first choice.  

That’s just the way that college was meant to be.

What are you going to be when you grow up?

Some people think the only way to be a success is to go to a famous
college.  Some people think you have to know what you want to do before
you go to college so you can pick the right major.  I've never believed either
of those to be true.

Here's an example. 

One particular
student worked at Arby's in high school and took ballet lessons.  He won
a dance scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet but turned it down to attend
Sarah Lawrence College because of its strong dance program.  He
graduated with a degree in liberal arts. 

Today, that former
ballet dancer and Sarah Lawrence grad is the White House Chief of Staff,
Rahm
Emanuel

I'm not saying you should or shouldn't admire his
politics or how he goes about his job–this isn't a political post. 

But
I am saying that he's a good example of a successful person who never
knew what he wanted to be when he was 18, and how the right (and not
particularly famous) college played a role in helping him find his
future path.

Thanks to Katie
for the great college trivia.

Please don’t play the multiple deposit game

Seniors who've been admitted to several desirable colleges need to make some difficult decisions next month, as colleges require admitted students to declare their intention to enroll by May 1.  It can be a stressful time especially for a student who is really struggling with the decision. But whatever you do, don't try to cheat your way to more time by placing multiple deposits.

Some families plunk down deposits at multiple colleges in an attempt to buy a little more time for their kids to choose which college to attend.  The thinking is that you can hold your spot at a few schools and then back out of the additional schools when you eventually name the chosen one.

This is bad idea for a number of reasons. 

I know that this is your search process and you shouldn't make decisions based on other people.  But when you place multiple deposits, you're taking spots that other kids desperately want.  That's not a nice thing to do. 

Also, deadlines are real.  And sometimes, we have to make difficult decisions under time pressure because of those deadlines.  Successful people accept this and find a way to get things done when they need to be done.  The truth is that you're unlikely to gain any additional clarity surrounding your college
choices by (literally) buying another week or two to think about it.  Take the allotted time to consider your options, but make your decision by May 1. 

And most importantly, if you place a deposit at more than one college and any of your schools find out that you're doing this, they can revoke your offer of admission (even if they're the school you eventually did choose).  College admissions officers take violations like this very seriously.  Imagine how a boss would react if she extended a job offer to someone and found out that he'd been dishonest with her during the interview process.  What if she found out he'd misled other companies with whom he'd interviewed.  Wouldn't that taint his reputation and cause the boss to take back his job offer, even if all of his credentials were still legitimate?  That's how colleges feel when they find out an accepted student was dishonest.

If they catch you lying (and that's what you're doing when you place multiple deposits), no college will care about your GPA or SAT scores or your certificate proclaiming that it was, in fact, you who discovered what really killed the dinosaurs.  You'll be out.   

I know what some of you are thinking. "How will a college possibly know if I place multiple deposits?"

Whatever the likelihood is that a college could discover it, is the risk worth the potential reward?  I don't think it is.

Lunch “brakes”

No one in the history of my hometown could drive from my high school’s parking lot to my family’s house faster than I could.  It wasn’t easy, safe or completely legal, but for three months during the spring of my senior year, I drove home every day at lunch to check the mailbox hoping to find the universal sign of college acceptance (pre-email of course)—the fat envelope—inside.

I would spend my first four periods of AP classes biting my nails, wondering if the postman was delivering news about where I would be spending the next four years in college.  But at 12:20, this anxious college applicant would jump behind the wheel.  And everybody on the road knew to get the hell out of the way.

I am no longer a fearless teenager willing to drive like a card-carrying member of the NASCAR circuit just to get to the mailbox and back before the start of fifth period AP Physics.   But high school kids (and parents) still anxiously wait out the months of March and April, checking the mail and email just to see if the suspense will end. 

College admissions is a lot more complicated than it used to be.  Kids today work harder, longer and under more pressure than I ever did.  But even during my racing period, my parents kept reminding me that I was going to college.  Whether it would be Michigan, Georgetown or UC Santa Cruz, I was still going to have a wonderful four years. 

That was good advice, and it still holds true for kids today.       

Good kids who work hard will always have a place in a college that’s right for them.  It's easy to lose sight of that with all the pressure of college admissions, especially when the decisions start to arrive and some of your favorite colleges say "No."

But when a high school senior signs on the dotted line and commits to attend a college in the fall, the feeling of relief, anticipation and success is just as great as it has always been.

For you seniors, all the wondering and worrying about where you might go to college will soon be replaced by the planning and packing
for where are going to college.  And the streets will officially be safer at lunchtime.  

So senior students and parents, hang in there.  The process might feel unbearable at times but even those of us who applied way back before the internet managed to get through it.  You will, too. 

A fundraising idea for high schools sports teams

If you're a high school athlete (or the parent of one) and your team needs funds for uniforms, travel, or new equipment, you might consider re-evaluating your usual fundraising and trying something a little different. 

Instead of selling candy bars or getting businesses to purchase ads in a team directory, I think there's a huge opportunity for athletes to show a little more initiative, for the teams to generate even bigger funds, and for the sponsors to reap the rewards of supporting the team.  Here it is.

1.  Nominate 2 teammates to serve as fundraising chairpersons.

Parents can serve as advisors for this project, but don't take it over from the kids.  If the team really needs money that badly, the teammates should care enough to take on this project themselves.  Let the team nominate the most motivated, organized teammates to head the project.

2.  Have the team pick the 20-25 local business they patronize most often.

Hold a team meeting and ask each member to write down the five local business that they visit (and spend money) most often.  Where do you and your friends eat pizza?  Where do you buy gas?  Where do you see movies?  What clothing stores do you frequent the most?  Compare everybody's lists and pick the 20-25 businesses that appear most often.

3.  Write letters (not emails!) to the businesses asking for sponsorships. 

Write each business a letter (you can re-use parts of the letter but each one should be personalized to each particular business).  Make sure it's a letter–email is too quick, too easy, and much more likely to be deleted.

Here's what should be in the letter.

  • An introduction.  Tell them where you go to high school and what team you play for.
  • Explain that you are approaching local businesses looking for sponsorships.  Tell them why do you need the money, what you are you going to use it for, and what is your goal is
  • Explain that the team met and picked the businesses they frequent most often.  Then tell this business specifically why they made the list.  "We like your pizza much better than Pizza Hut's, and we have all our team dinners with you, too" or "Every member of our team buys a smoothie at your store at least once a week–my favorite flavor is banana raspberry, by the way."  
  • Offer to do something for them in return to help them promote their business.  Suggest things you can do, like have a parent hand out coupons for 1/2 off smoothies at each one of your games for a sponsorship of $500.  Or have the whole team where t-shirts promoting the business on game days for a sponsorship of $1000.  

Here's a big one. For a sponsorship of $5,000, make a promise to the business that every team member and her parents will buy all of your gas or smoothies or pizza from the sponsoring business for a period of 1 year (you could make up little cards with the team name to give the manager every time you buy, so he or she knows how much business you're giving them).  

I'm a small business owner, and I can tell you that a smart business will see that this math works in their favor.  15 players on a team means about 40 potential customers if you include parents.  If each of those 40 customers bought just 6 large pizzas in a year, the pizza joint would make its $5000 back. And those customers will inevitably bring in more business in the form of friends who aren't even on the team.  For the right business, it's both a profitable decision and a chance to do right by kids in the community.

You could also allow a business to suggest an idea for a particular sponsorship (you don't necessarily have to do what they suggest, for the amount the suggest, but they can at least suggest it).

  • Have a reply form where they can choose their option, and make one of the options "Please contact me to discuss."  Include a stamped reply envelope and hand-write a return address where they can send the form and a check. 
  • Once you get your funds, assign 5 different team members (not the fundraising chair persons–they're doing enough) to be in charge of contacting the businesses, thanking them, and coordinating the promotion of their business.
  • Throughout the season, take pictures of your team promoting the business.  Get a group shot of all of you in front of your lockers at school wearing the local deli's t-shirts.  Snap a photo of the fans holding up their coupons for half priced smoothies.  Take a picture of the starting center eating two slices of the sponsoring pizza place's pizza at the same time.  Have some fun with it.  Once every couple weeks, email a few of the photos to the store managers so they can see you in action.
  • At the end of the season, pick the 2 or 3 most artistic members of the team (OK, or the most artistic parents if no member of the team is artistic) to make a nice collage with a photo of the team signed by the players, a big thank-you for sponsoring them, and a collection of the photos you took of the promotion.  This shows the partnership–they helped you and you helped them.  And it's something that a local business can put up on their wall proudly. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  It's too hard.  It will take too long.  It's not worth the effort.  I get that.  But if it's not worth the effort for you, then why should the local business sponsor you?  What's in it for them, really?  I think businesses should support the communities that support them, but why not set it up so both parties benefit? 

If you do this and it works for both parties, you haven't just secured a one-time small donation.  You've created a partner in the community, a business who will follow and support your team, and one who won't need to be convinced to sponsor you again next year.

You'll make more money for your team, you'll gain a long-term team supporter in the community, and you'll have a great story to tell colleges. 

Looks can be deceiving

My accountant is the most responsible and successful people I’ve ever met.  But he used to spend spring breaks with his fraternity in Rosarito, Mexico sleeping in tents on the beach. 

That’s nothing compared to the college shenanigans of my lawyer and my liability insurance agent.  Sure, they’re buttoned-down, successful family men today.  But I know some college stories about them that aren’t so responsible.  In fact, I have first hand knowledge of their exploits. 

I went to college at UC-Irvine with all of these guys. 

Long before we ever scheduled official lunch meetings to discuss tax implications, copyright law or workers compensation insurance, we spent our college years living together, playing intramural basketball, cramming for finals, playing video games, cooking spaghetti ten different ways, embarrassing each other in front of our girlfriends and, yes, going to our share of (good) college parties.

Don’t get me wrong.  All of us had goals to make successful post-college lives for ourselves.  So we made sure to get our work done.  But that was no reason to pass up late night basketball games once we learned how to slip (read "trespass") into the gym unnoticed after hours.  We’d play until midnight, cap off the evening with cold “refreshments” at our apartment, and then get up and go to class the next day.

None of us left college with an Ivy League degree to flaunt to future employers.  UC-Irvine doen’t have Harvard name-brand prestige.  But we spent four years at the right college.  And look where we are today.   

The accountant and the lawyer are both partners in their respective firms.  The insurance agent owns his own insurance company.  And one of us started Collegewise (and is writing this blog entry).  The old basketball team seems to be doing just fine.   

Colleges don’t make kids successful—kids have to do that themselves.  But the right college can be the catalyst to turn youthful potential into grown-up success. 

We didn't need a school at the top of the US News college rankings to make us successful.  Nobody does.  Wherever you go to college, use that time to find your academic interests, to discover your talents.  And for goodness sake, have some fun while you're there, too.  We're happy with our lives but I'd be lying if I told you we didn't miss our late night basketball games every now and then.  They were an important part of our college experience    

Anyone who looked at how my buddies and I spent our days in college might think we weren’t learning, but we were.  In college, looks can be deceiving.  

Information seeking

Have you visited the websites of the colleges that interest you (or that interest your kids)?  I'm often surprised by how few families have. 

It's good to be an information seeker when it comes to colleges.  You can't sit back and wait for people to hand you the information you need to find, apply and pay for college today.  That's why the colleges' own websites are your best friends. 

Most of colleges' sites do a very good job of detailing everything from what curriculum they recommend to prepare for admission, to what standardized tests to take, to what forms to fill out for admission and financial aid.

If you want to know what a college requires, their website is the first place you should go.

Your high school counselor can give you good information, too.  So can an admissions representative at a college fair, or a professional private counselor with the right experience.  But the most important information will be available any time, for free, by just visiting the colleges' websites.

If you feel like you need more guidance about what colleges are looking for, a little information-seeking via their websites will clear up a lot of your confusion.