Three college application timesavers

Simple, but they work.

1. For each college you’re applying to, create web bookmarks for both the admissions and financial aid pages of their sites.  You’ll be back over and over again.

2. Fill out the online forms to request more information from each college.  This tells colleges you’re a potential applicant, and in return, they’ll alert you when the application is available.

3. Write down your login and password information for each application you begin.  Do the same thing with your information for and/or  You don't want to have to work to retrieve that information if you're under deadline pressure.

Start with have-to-do

When you’re starting a business, beginning a project for school, or even just deciding the next steps for something you’re working on, it’s important to separate the stuff you can or want to do from what you absolutely have to do.  Have-to-do is where you need to start.

The guys at 37Signals talk about this in Rework.  They call it, “Start at the epicenter” and advise that you find it by asking, “If I took this away, would what I’m selling still exist?”  They use the example of opening a hot dog stand.  What’s the epicenter?  It’s not the condiments, the cart, the name, or the decoration.  It’s the hot dog.  You could get lost in all those other details, but without hot dogs, you’ve got nothing to sell.   Start by getting the hot dog right.  Then worry about everything else.

It might seem obvious to focus on the most important thing.  But when I’m in the middle of a project, the most important next step isn’t always clear.  I used this epicenter concept just today.  After seven months, the manuscript for my next book, our guide to college admissions, is officially done and edited.  I made a long list of next steps that involve everything from laying out the book with a designer, to building a promotion site with our web developer, to writing copy for the official announcement to our blog and newsletter audiences. My list is two pages long, and everything on it feels important (to me) at first glance.

But if we don’t get the book up on Amazon, the Kindle Store, Borders, etc., nobody will be able to buy it.  That’s the epicenter.  The items on the list that get the book into those sales channels are where we need to focus now.  Everything else is just condiments.   

Their hot dog stand example seems to help me.  Maybe it’ll do the same for you.


Some people work even harder in the face of competition.  A student who likes to set the curve might take his academic game up another notch in an AP class full of high-achievers.  An athlete might show up to practice early and shoot an extra 100 free throws when there’s competition for her starting spot.  And a student who thinks an extra 50 hours of community service could lead to an admission from Yale may carve out a few extra hours a week to reach her goal.  Sometimes competition really can bring out our best.

But there’s a downside to thriving best in a competitive environment.  What do you do when there is no competition?  If you’re going to rely on competitors to get you to do your best work, you’re dependent on them to show up.  Your competitors are deciding how hard you’ll work and when. 

The students who stand out to colleges are those who do great work even when nobody’s competing.  They love learning so much that they bring their academic game to every class. They love basketball enough to shoot the extra free throws.  And they want to help people whether or not Yale’s going to notice.

If your life is starting to feel like one big competition to get into college, think about which classes and activities you’d actually enjoy with or without competition.  Then focus your energies there.  Self-motivation is the best kind.  

Don’t plug imaginary leaks

“If I take a summer class at community college I can raise my GPA over 4.0.”

“With another round of tutoring, I might break 2100 on the SAT.”

“I don’t have enough leadership, so I’m going to start a club this fall.”

That’s how some students approach college planning. They try to fix what they think are imperfections instead of doing something remarkable with their strengths. That’s like spending all your time plugging imaginary leaks on a boat without sailing anywhere.

If that sounds like your current college planning, slow down and ask yourself—are you fixing real weaknesses or plugging imaginary leaks?  A “D” in trig, test-taking troubles that are hurting your grades and SAT scores, or a high school career with no activities are weaknesses that need to be addressed.  But trying to fix every little imperfection? That’s no way to stand out and it certainly isn’t any fun.

That doesn’t sound right

When a student relays a situation to us like,

“A college is telling me I can stay on the waitlist, but I have to promise to go there if they admit me later,” or, “A college told me that if I wait until May 1 to accept the offer of admission, the spot may not still be available,” or anything that sounds unethical or just not right, we do two things.

1. Ask to see the letter/email.
If the confusing message came in writing, we want to see it.  Some colleges’ written communications are confusing.  Sometimes kids garble the message.  Either way, we want to see the piece before we make a counseling judgment.

2. Consult the “Statement of Principles and Good Policies” (SPGP)
The National Association of College Admissions Counseling publishes a Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  Colleges that are members of NACAC (most are) agree to adhere to the guidelines. 

Usually, #1 clears up any confusion.  We’ve yet to see a case where an otherwise reputable college blatantly violated the principles, but we have seen cases where the wording of their communication could have been interpreted that way.  If it’s not clear to us, we’ll do #2. 

If it appears the school is suggesting something they shouldn’t be, we’ll ask the student to call the college and ask for clarification about the key issue.  Our student can then be specific, like, “Am I understanding this email correctly that I need to promise to accept a future offer of admission if I stay on the waitlist?”

The outcome of that call almost always clears it up for the student and for us.

Did Harvard make Conan O’Brien successful?

Conan O’Brien is a Harvard graduate (and the architect of one of education’s best commencement speeches).  He’s written for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, and he's been a successful host of late night television since 1993.

CNN released snippets of Piers Morgan’s interview with O’Brien airing on Monday.  A few tidbits for the college-bound:

On his high school years:
"I was always a very hard-working student and wanted to go to a good school and worked really hard to go to a good school.”

On finding comedy in college:
“Comedy was something that I stumbled into when I was in college.  Getting into comedy was a very beautiful accident, because I worked very hard at everything, and I tried really hard.  It was like falling off a log and discovering what it is that I was meant to do.  I loved it. I absolutely loved it."

(Note: While at Harvard, O’Brien was elected as president of the revered parody magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, twice.) 

What the transcript doesn’t reveal is that O’Brien also majored in history, wrote a thesis arguing that the weary, prematurely aged children in the works of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor were actually metaphors for both the South’s poverty and its defeat in the Civil War, and graduated magna cum laude.

I notice several themes in O’Brien’s biography typical of many successful people, none of which involve attending a prestigious college:

1. O’Brien worked hard while he was in high school.  Whether or not your hard work earns you an acceptance to a prestigious college is less important than whether you care enough about your education and your future to work hard in the first place.

2. Conan didn’t ease off once he was in college.  He kept working just as hard in and out of class.  College isn’t a finish line, especially in today’s job market.  You’re going to need to carve out a remarkable college career wherever you go.    

3. He didn’t have a career goal when he entered college; he discovered what he loved to do while he was there.  If you already have a career goal and are choosing colleges based on their ability to prepare you for that career, that’s fine.  But if not, remember that plenty of successful people can’t draw a straight line from their career today back to their college major.

4. Conan took advantage of the opportunities his college offered him.  Writing for the Harvard Lampoon, serving as its president, developing his critical thinking in his history classes–he channeled his work ethic into those opportunities.  He didn’t coast for four years, wave a Harvard degree at the world, and wait for a job to role in.

So, did Harvard make Conan O’Brien successful?  Sure, it played a role (it is the Harvard Lampoon, after all).

But, like most successful people, O’Brien—not his college—deserves most of the credit for his success.  What he did while he was in college was more important than where he did it.

How to praise kids effectively

Daniel Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us argues that incentives like money and recognition may lead to short-term motivation, but the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t lead to long-term motivation.  The end of the book offers some specific advice for different audiences, including these tips for parents about the most effective ways to praise kids.

Praise effort and strategy, not intelligence. 
Students who are praised for being smart may avoid challenges and choose easier paths.  Kids who are praised for their effort are more willing to take on new and difficult tasks.

Make praise specific.
Instead of heaping generalities on kids, parents should give them useful information and tell them specifically want they’ve done that’s noteworthy.

Praise in private
Pink says that praise should be feedback, not an awards ceremony.  That’s why praise is often best delivered in private.

Offer up praise only when there’s a good reason for it.
Kids can see through fake praise.  Kids see it as dishonest and unearned.  Be sincere, or be quiet. 

Here’s Pink’s Ted talk discussing his ideas about the science behind motivation.

Discuss the handoff

I never made my own appointments with the dentist while I was in high school.  I knew when I had soccer practice, meetings for the school newspaper, and big plans for Saturday night.  But unless it was extra-curricular or social, my mother arranged and booked it…until I applied to college.

The college admissions process can be an awkward handoff of responsibility in some families, even those with the most independent students.  A student who has relied on his parents to handle life’s administrative tasks might reasonably assume that when it comes to booking college tours, accessing applications and managing deadlines, ol’ Mom and Dad have it covered.   

So talk about the handoff.  I don’t care who brings it up first.  Whether it’s the parents making it clear they’ll be stepping back or the student asserting that he’ll be stepping up, discuss the handoff now.  Be clear about who will be in charge of which parts of the process. 

My suggested roles for parents include supporter, sounding board, cheerleader and maybe completing the financial aid forms.  My suggested roles for students include everything else.

Real beats perfect

It's hard to relate to perfect.  It’s why people prefer live flowers that wilt instead of plastic ones that last forever.  It’s why music fans buy versions of their favorite songs recorded live. It’s why chef Jamie Oliver advises when rolling out homemade bread: Don’t fuss around with perfection. It’s supposed to be rough and rustic. The imperfections are what make them real. 

When you’re applying to college, be proud of your accomplishments, but be a real human being, too. Sound like yourself in your essays. Don’t try to inflate your activities with fancy-sounding titles. If an essay prompt or an interviewer asks you about a time you failed or made a mistake, tell the truth. The students who present themselves as perfect never seem as interesting as those who aren’t afraid to be real.

The Cold War approach to college admissions

Some students try to improve their chances of admission to their chosen colleges by emulating what their fellow students at school are doing.  If someone else takes a summer class in calculus, they enroll in one, too.  If someone else breaks 2000 on the SAT, they sign up for another round of test prep and try to match the score.  If someone else does a hundred community service hours, they set a goal to break triple digits in number-of-hours-volunteered, too. 

Continuously focusing on what other people are doing and then trying to one-up them is a Cold War approach to college admissions, and it’s not effective for a couple of reasons. 

First, copying someone else is no way to stand out.  Someone’s already done it.  And if you can copy it, there’s nothing to stop others from copying, too.

When you’re following other people, it’s hard to keep up.  You’re chasing instead of leading, and you’ll almost always be behind.  

But the worst part of the Cold War approach is that it’s not rewarding.  Spending your time chasing other peoples’ accomplishments is a lot less fulfilling than chasing your own goals and ambitions.    

If you’ve fallen into the Cold War approach, stop focusing on what the competition is doing.  Instead of one-upping the competition, set your own goals and work to achieve them. You might get copied, but that’s a lot better than being a copier.