Cultivating good writing

One of my friend’s (now former) bosses once sent the company a two page email that did something amazing—it said absolutely nothing.  Our group of friends has since read it dozens of times trying to find one cogent point (it’s possible we’ve even done dramatic readings).  But we can’t find one.  It’s just two pages of vague abstractions and generalities punctuated with phrases like, “The big duh is…” and “It’s here like a really loud knock at the door.”  It's hard to believe that the writer really expected anyone to appreciate or benefit from the message.  And if you're going to say nothing at all, you’d be better off sending just that—nothing at all.     

I’ve written before about the dangers of bad writing in business and college essays.  But for high school students, here are a few more writing thoughts, whether or not you consider yourself a writer.   

1. If you like to write, work hard to get great at it.
Writing is a strength worth maximizing.  Do rough drafts of your essays and get your teacher’s feedback before turning in your final version.  Enroll in a creative writing or business communication class at your local community college.  Take the extra five minutes to write a good email that’s properly punctuated.  Writing happens to be one of those strengths that gets regularly rewarded in both your personal and professional life.  So why not maximize that strength?   

2. If you don’t like to write, work to get better at it.
I think students should spend less time fixing their weaknesses and more time improving their strengths.  But writing is just too important to be bad at it.  You can’t get into college without writing an essay.  You can’t get a job without writing a cover letter.  You can’t communicate with anyone of importance without writing an email.  It's usually not fun to work at something you struggle doing.  But you have a choice.  You can spend time improving your writing or you can lament the opportunities you miss because your writing wasn’t up to par.  Here’s a recent post from Seth Godin with some simple rules for better writing, and one of mine on how to write a good email message. 

3. Make sure your organization has great writers on staff. 
When we hire anyone at Collegewise—from counselors to editors to assistants—we pay great attention to their cover letters (and we’re not the only company who does this).   I think great writing is a sign of clear thinking as well as clear communicating.  When we’re trying to decide between two potential hires at Collegewise, we always hire the better writer.   

There’s no reason leaders in high school activities couldn’t do the same thing.  Whether you’re in the student counsel, the Spanish Club or the National Honor Society, identify who the great writers are.  If you don’t have any, recruit some.  Run an announcement in the daily bulletin that the Spanish Club is looking for a good writer to join their ranks.  Then put those writers to use, which brings me to… 

4. Let your best writers handle your organization’s written communications.
If you’re going to send something out to your club, team, school yearbook staff, etc., have one of the designated writers handle it.  If the message really needs to come from a specific person who isn’t one of the writers, have that person write the message and let one of the writers edit it.  If you’re saying to yourself, “But that takes so much longer,” you’re right.   You can have speed, or you can have great writing.  But you can’t always have both.

If it wouldn’t work at Google, it won’t work in college admissions

Imagine you were interviewing candidates for a job as a programmer at Google and you asked each one why they wanted to work at Google (which is a standard question in a job interview).  Would you hire the applicant who gave you this answer?

“Well, it’s Google.  It’s a great company.  I really want to do computer programming, which you do here, and Google would really look good on my resume.  Plus, I love how you have so many perks here, like free lunches, a gym, and dry cleaning right here at work.  And your complex is really pretty.  I really like the buildings and the way it’s all laid out.  It’s just gorgeous.  That's why I've wanted to work here for a long time and why Google is my first choice of companies to work for."

There’s nothing wrong with that answer.  But all this applicant did was tell you things about Google that you (and pretty much everybody else) already know.  You didn’t learn anything about the candidate.  He could have given the exact same answer to any number of other companies.  Sure, there’s only one Google, but lots of companies have perks and pretty buildings.  You’d probably start to wonder if this person had bothered to really think about what kind of work environment he wanted to be in and if he really knew whether Google was a good fit for him.

That’s why telling a college you want to go there because they have, “…a great reputation, a strong (insert major here) program, and a beautiful campus is an ineffective answer, too.

Stand out by telling stories

Dan Heath is the co-author of "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." In this 16-minute podcast, “Making You Stick,” he talks about how to stand out from the pack when the pack is crowded, including when writing college essays and applying to college.  You can download it here:


I disagree when he says that when you write a college essay, you need to convince them that you are the perfect applicant for that school.  Students who try to do that inevitably write clichéd essays about how being an Eagle Scout taught them to commit to their goals.  But yes, you do need to stand out, and his advice will help.

On last impressions

Every year in June, Collegewise families are invited to re-enroll in the next level of our program.  Most continue with us, but not all.  Some decide that they just don't need a college counselor or that their student should go to community college first.  Other times, we mutually decide that we're not a great fit together and we refer them to another counselor who we think may be right for them.  But no matter what the circumstance, we try to part ways on great terms. 

We want people to feel good about their experience with us even if they leave our program.  And what they'll remember most is their last interaction, the way we conducted ourselves once we knew it was over between us.  That's the last impression we leave, and we want to make it count.

Last week, I told one of our vendors that after eight years, I wouldn't need their services again this year.  I made it clear that there were no hard feelings and that I wasn't unhappy–I just didn't have a need for them any longer.  All I got in response was a brief–"OK, we'll cancel the invoice."

There's nothing wrong with what they did.  But how hard would it have been to send me a nice email and thank me for doing business with them for almost a decade?  I've probably spent over $5,000 during that time.  How much would it have taken to do just a little extra to part good friends rather than mutual acquaintances.

Had they done just a little more to make my last impression a better one, I would be singing their praises.  I'd go out of my way to refer potential business to them because of how I remembered that last interaction. It wouldn't have been that hard.  Wouldn't it have been worth it?

We can talk about making a great first impression.  But maybe the last one is more important?

This wouldn’t have been the same without (your name here)

One of the easiest ways to identify a person who really makes a difference is to ask, "Who would this not have been the same without?"

Which players on your baseball team had so much talent that the season just would not have been the same without them?

Which performers in the school play were so good that the production would never have been the same if they weren't in it?

Which writers for the school paper are such good reporters and editors that the paper just wouldn't be as professional without them on the staff?

That's the talent portion of what you'll find when you ask the question. It reveals the people who were so good at what they did that the team, production or paper just wouldn't been as good without their talent. 

But that's not all you'll find.

Is there a player on water polo team has such a great attitude that she inspires other players even if she isn't a starter?

Is there a solid but not exceptional tuba player who jokes around and keeps people laughing even when the sun is beating down on your polyester uniforms during the third hour of practice with the marching band?

Is there a junior member of the student government who always seems to find mutual ground to curb disagreements during your meetings?

The water polo team, marching band and student government wouldn't be the same without those people even though they didn't have the most talent or the most important positions.

So here's your challenge–what could you do that would make people name you when asked, "Who would this not have been the same without?"


What to do–and not to do–in college

It's not where you go to college; it's what you do while you're there.  And Seth Godin offers some good insight about exactly what to do (and what not to do).


As I drove through the amazingly beautiful (Yale) campus, I passed the center for Asian Studies. It reminded me of my days as an undergrad (at a lesser school, natch), browsing through the catalog, realizing I could learn whatever I wanted. That not only could I take classes but I could start a business, organize a protest movement, live in a garret off campus, whatever. It was a tremendous gift, this ability to choose.  Yet most of my classmates refused to choose. Instead, they treated college like an extension of high school. They took the most mainstream courses, did the minimum amount they needed to get an A, tried not to get into "trouble" with the professor or face the uncertainty of the unknowable. They were the ones who spent six hours a day in the library, reading their textbooks.  The best part of college is that you could become whatever you wanted to become, but most people just do what they think they must."

The entire post is here.

How one kid from a not-so-prestigious college became a heart surgeon

During our four years at UC Irvine, I don’t think my college buddy Shane ever once missed a party.  And whenever our fraternity would head to the annual spring break trip to Mexico with the Tri-Delts, Shane was the first one there with a bottle of Coppertone and a hideous bathing suit.

Shane was also a premed who decided that one major—biology—wasn’t enough.  So he added a second major in chemistry…and a minor in global peace and conflict studies just because he found it fascinating.  During midterms and finals, Shane would bury himself in the basement of the library and never pick his head up from the books.  He worked as a tutor through our school’s “tutorial assistant program,” volunteered for the summer orientation program for new students and was a resident advisor in the dorms.  He played guitar in a band, volunteered in a hospital, did science research with a professor, was a teacher’s assistant for a social science course, and eventually graduated with high honors.  He was and still is the best example I’ve ever seen of someone making the most of college on all fronts.  He worked harder—and had more fun—than anyone else I knew.

Shane went on to medical school, graduated at the top of his class, and spent the next decade of his life becoming a cardiologist.  He is now one of only a handful of doctors in the world who can do a catheter ablation for complex arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia. I have absolutely no idea what that means.  But Shane does.

UC Irvine is a good school.  But it’s not world-famous like Ivy League schools are.  From a selectivity standpoint, UCI is middle of the road for our UC system, with Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego being far more selective and famous. 

But I’ve said it on this blog before, and I’ll keep saying it.  Where you go to college matters much less than what you do while you’re there. 

If ever there were proof of that, it’s Shane.

What to do if you didn’t get into an AP class

So you wanted to be placed into an AP class next year (like Bio, US history or English) but you didn’t get the class.  What should you do about it?

First, here’s what you shouldn’t do.  Don’t send your parents in to fight with your counselor or otherwise put pressure on the school to let you into the class.  Unless you were the rare victim of a scheduling snafu or other mix-up, the reality is that there is room for only so many chairs in a classroom.  If you didn’t make the cut, it’s unfortunate, but it’s not a miscarriage of justice.

Here are a few productive ways you could channel that energy into the non-AP class.  You don’t have to do all of them–any combination would show that just because you’re not in AP doesn’t mean you aren’t a hard-working and engaged student.

1. Set a goal to be the highest achieving student in the course.  Ever earned an A+ before?  Here’s the perfect time to do it.

2. Participate in class regularly.  Put your hand up, ask questions, and contribute to the class discussion.

3.  If there are any papers, oral reports or other projects outside of tests and homework, make yours memorable.  Do something that the teacher will tell future classes about.

4.  If you really love the subject, don’t let the learning be limited to class time.  Ask your teacher how you could learn more through outside reading or additional coursework.

5.  And if you really want to show that you should have been in the AP class, take the class at a local community college and then take the AP test.  Make sure your counselor knows you’re doing it so he or she can tell the colleges you apply to how far out of your way you went to get the AP curriculum.  Even if you didn’t pass the test, you’d still look pretty gutsy for taking a shot at it without actually having taken the official AP course.

The truth about class rank

Some high schools will assign you a numerical class rank to measure your academic achievement relative to that of the rest of your classmates (Example:  you’re ranked 28th out of a class of 214).  But many high schools, convinced that class ranks foster too much unhealthy competition between classmates, have abolished class rankings.  And no matter what a high school does with class rank, I’ve found there will always be a small group of students who feels they were hurt by policy.

But the truth is that whichever choice your high school makes about class rank, it’s not going to hurt your chances of admission to college.  Most colleges find a numerical ranking to be a nice shortcut.  It makes their job a little easier.  But it’s still just one tool they can use.  

Lots of colleges assign readers to particular geographic regions.  That means the person reading your application will also be reading the applications from any other seniors from your school. They won't need a class rank to get a sense of how you stacked up against your classmates. 

Counselors also write “high school profiles” for colleges summarizing the courses available, percentage of students who go on to college, average GPA of graduates, etc.  That helps colleges assess where you rate in relation to other students.  

And if that’s not enough, most private colleges require that applicants ask their counselor to submit a “secondary school report” on which one of the portions asks the counselor to describe the applicant’s level of academic achievement relative to the rest of the class.

So don’t worry whether or not your school chooses to rank students.  You have no control over that choice.  You do have control over the classes you take, the grades you get, and the attitude you bring with you to class every day.  Get those things right, and you'll be appealing to colleges with or without a class rank to measure you.