You’re doing business even before the transaction happens

I want to rent a house for a vacation this spring, and I found what looks to be a perfect one on a vacation rental site.  It said to contact the owner for availability, so I sent him an email.  I won’t bore you with all the minutiae of what’s happened since then, but every promise to get back to me about availability, to send me paperwork, to confirm my reservation—none of them have been fulfilled.  I’ve been ready to pay and lock this down since my first contact.  But at this point, I am essentially begging him to take my money.

So far, the outcomes are:

1) He’s made it much harder than it needed to be for me to do business with him.
2) I’m now predisposed not to feel good when I pay him money.   

No money has changed hands yet, but I’m already not feeling good about doing business with him, which is too bad, because he seems like a nice guy (if he were a jerk, this would have been over a long time ago).  When we’ve started out like this, there’s already ground to make up.  I can’t help but wonder if this is a sign of disorganization to come.  Even if everything else goes perfectly from here on—if the house is beautiful and it’s everything I hoped it would be—I’ll be happy, but I’m not going to rave about my experience to anyone.

If you’re a private counselor or another kind of small business owner, you’re doing business even before the transaction happens.  Is it easy for me to find your contact information on your website?  Do you list your email address (or do I have to fill out a long online form to ask you a question)?  Do you answer your phone when I call?  Do you get back to me quickly when I leave you a message?  Do you make it easy for me to hire you and pay you?  Do I feel good when I make that decision? 

The way you deal with potential customers tells a story about how you run your business.  Design your business the right way, and people will actually rave about you even before they hire you.  Imagine if the owner of this house had given me this story to tell:

“I sent the owner an email, and he called me back in 30 minutes.  He answered all my questions, sent me some additional pictures of the place that weren’t up online, and offered to hold it for me for 48 hours while I made up my mind.  The next morning, I sent him my credit card number, and I got a reply right away with my confirmation, a receipt, a great list of all the stuff that’s included at the house, some suggestions of items I should bring, and his personal recommendations for the best restaurants in town.” 

He’d have had a happy customer, a rented house, and my money a lot faster.

Work hard to be missed

Which is more important—to be the scoring leader on the basketball team or to be the kind of player your teammates and coaches will miss when you graduate?

Of course, it’s great if you can be both.  But if given the choice, I think it’s better to be the kind of player who will be missed.  If you’re the leading scorer, but you’re not a great leader, you care more about your stats than you do about the team’s record, and you always take the shot before making a great pass, nobody’s going to miss you when you’re gone.  But if you show up early to practice, bring a great attitude every day, fire up the team, and still find a way to average 9 assists a game even though you come off the bench, you’re making a great impact on your team.  And they’re going to miss you.

I mention this because it’s a mistake to think the only way to stand out is to always be the best—to lead the team in scoring, be the president of the student body, or set the curve in calculus.  It’s great if you can do those things, but first, work hard enough to be missed later, whether or not you’ve got the talent to be the best.  Your attitude, the way you treat other people, the energy you bring to the work, those traits make you valuable whether or not you’re the MVP, president or curve buster.

Before you worry about being the best, work hard to be missed.  Neither goal is easy.  But the latter often pays off more than the former does.

When email is your introduction

I got an angry note once from someone who’d applied for a job as editor at Collegewise and was “shocked and dismayed” that we hadn’t invited her to interview.  There were several reasons we’d passed on her, and one of them was the way she’d introduced herself to us in her email: 

“attached please find my cover letter and resume.  thank you”

No greeting, no capitalization, and some sketchy punctuation.  That’s not a good way to introduce yourself (especially when you’re applying for a job as an editor). 

This is a mistake I see a lot of high school students make during the college admissions process.  When an interviewer emails you to schedule a time to meet, or someone in the admissions office invites you to an event for applicants, whatever you send back is the way you’re choosing to introduce yourself.  That’s the first impression you’ll make.  You’d never go to your college interview while still in your pajamas and without even brushing your hair.  And yet a lot of kids think nothing of sending an email like:

“sunday at noon is good.  thank you” or “kevin mcmullin will attend the workshop” 

That’s just a sloppy, lazy way to communicate, especially with someone from a college.  Are you going to get rejected because of that?  Probably not.  But you’re doing absolutely nothing to help yourself, either. 

There’s no need to write a response like Hemingway.  But why not make a good first impression?


Sunday at noon at Starbucks sounds perfect.  I really appreciate you working around my soccer schedule and I’m looking forward to chatting with you.  Thanks so much.”

Kevin McMullin

Or when you’re RSVPing for an event:


Thanks so much for emailing me about the Bowdoin event on Sunday.  If there’s still room, I’d love to come with my parents.  We’re really looking forward to it. Thanks so much.

Kevin McMullin”

It’s not hard.  And enough kids get it wrong that you can stand out by getting it right.   

Three mistakes college applicants must avoid this month

Seniors, while you’re awaiting the last of the decisions to arrive from your colleges, don’t make any of these common mistakes:

1. Neglect to send a midyear report to a college that requires one.

2. Forget to send your required financial aid paperwork (most deadlines will be before March 1).

3. Ignore an email or letter from a college in which you were asked to send information that’s missing from your application, like a letter of recommendation or official test scores.

Check your colleges’ websites to verify whether they require midyear reports, and to see when the financial aid forms are due.  And don’t ignore any communication you get from a college, especially one informing you that one or more of your application materials is still missing. 

Do you really have until May 1 to decide?

Students accepted for fall admission are supposed to have until May 1 to decide between the colleges that accepted them (unless you were admitted under a binding early decision program).  And yet some colleges seem to imply in their acceptance letters that waiting until that date could leave you shut out of housing options, classes, or even space in the class altogether.  So do you really have until May 1 to decide?

First, you should know that all colleges that are members of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling agree to follow the Statement of Principles of Good Practice which says clearly that, unless you are accepted in a binding early decision program, the college will:


So yes, unless explicitly stated otherwise, you have until May 1 to make up your mind.  If a college implies or outright says that waiting until May 1 could somehow be detrimental, don’t let it scare you into making a decision sooner than you’re ready.  Instead, call the admissions office and politely ask for clarification.  If you don’t get a straight answer, ask your counselor to call for you. This decision is too important to make in a hurry or without all the right information.

In return, you need to do the right thing, too, and…

1. Reply to all your colleges by May 1, including those you decide not to attend (so they know the spot they offered you can now go to someone else).

2. Only place a deposit at one school.  You don’t get to plunk multiple deposits down at more than one school so you can buy more time after May 1 to decide.

Juking the stats


You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.”

David Simon, Gaming The System, Juking The Stats

Not surprisingly, we were all reminded again this week that college rankings inspire the same behavior. 

If you look to US News rankings to pick your colleges, you're relying on an algorithm that rewards measures like test scores, how many kids apply, how many get rejected, and how many of the accepted kids decide to attend.  That's some pretty flimsy data to use to evaluate where you should go to college for four years.  And there's no way to tell if or how much those stats are juked.  You can and should evaluate colleges.  But you can't measure the quality of an institution–how well it educates, inspires and transforms–with an algorithm.

By the way, Simon created and wrote The Wire, regarded as one of the finest dramatic series in the history of television.  And he didn't need to go to a "Top Ten Ranked" university to be successful.  He went to the University of Maryland. 

My old college buddy—writer and editor Adam Kleiner—is plugging away editing my next book.  When each round of his feedback arrives, it’s loaded with criticism.   

“This section needs tightening.”
“Fact check—support with a real example.”
“This feels entirely speculative to me.”   
“Too many references to soccer and trigonometry.  Mix it up.”

it’s not exactly a cheerleading squad.  But he’s doing exactly what I want him to do.

Adam knows a lot more than I do about how to publish a book people will love reading.  He understands what I’m trying to do with the book but isn’t afraid to tell me the truth about what’s missing or just isn’t good enough.  I don’t need a cheerleader any more than I need a cranky hack who’s predisposed not to like anything I write.  That’s why I chose him to be my critic.   

There’s a lot of uninvited and counterproductive criticism lobbed around in high school, but you can invite helpful criticism from people you trust who know what they’re talking about, and you can give them permission to be honest. 

Tell your drama instructor how much you want to nail the role and ask her what you could do to improve.  Show your articles to your journalism teacher and ask what would make them even better.  Ask your football coach what you would really have to do to be a starter next year.

Imagine how much better your work could be if you invited the right criticism (and how liberating it would be to ignore the critics you didn’t pick).

Rejection just means redirecting

Last year, I wrote about an idea Arun and I had to present our college essay workshop at the big annual NACAC conference with two particular admissions officers we really like and respect.  We got them on board and polished every word of our session proposal before we submitted it to the conference planning committee.  And then we got rejected. 

Like a “No” letter from a college, the email that we got told us that there were just too many good sessions proposed from qualified presenters.  It turned out to be a good reminder to walk our own Collegewise talk.

College rejections can feel bitterly personal, but they’re not.  We tell students (and their parents) to maintain their perspective and not to treat a rejection like a tragedy or a miscarriage of justice.  That advice turns out to be much easier to give than it is to follow.   But still, we followed it.  We were miffed for a day and wondered how they could have possibly rejected us (“Who could do this better than us??”).   Then we moved on and even laughed about it.  One of the admissions officers we recruited ribbed us for “failing to get him a gig.”  

We also tell kids that one dream school doesn’t get to decide whether or not you have four years of amazing professors, interesting students, phenomenal personal growth and plenty of college fun (Harvard only gets to decide whether or not you do those things at Harvard.)  If we really wanted to share our workshop with counselors, we didn’t need one particular organization to say yes.  We just had to redirect and find another way. 

So I proposed the session myself—and it was accepted—at nine different NACAC affiliate conferences.  Arun and I both did workshops for English teachers at local high schools.  I published a book about how high school teachers and counselors can help their students with college essays.  And Arun ended up speaking at NACAC in a different session about Asian American students and college admissions. 

Most rejections don’t stop you from doing anything—they just make you redirect.  You can still go to the prom with somebody else, get a job someplace else, go to a different college or do a presentation at a different conference.  Don’t give one person, boss, committee or panel all the power.  If they say no, accept it, redirect, and move on.

How is college life going?

It’s that time of year when our Collegewise counselors email their former students who are now in college to find out how things are going.  We ask them to tell us about their college lives, what they’re up to, and to send us a picture showing us how they’re spending their time.  It’s not just good college research for us (college kids are better than any website or guidebook if you want to know about their school).  Not all that long ago, these students were researching schools with us, filling out applications, writing essays, and worried about who might say yes.  That's all behind them now, and it's fun for our counselors to hear how their college lives are going.

The best thing about reaching out to our former students is the near universal reminder that college kids are happy kids no matter where they go.  Not all of those students are attending the college that was their first choice back in high school.  But like romantic rejection, college rejection eventually goes away.  There’s too much to do, too much to be excited about on a college campus to dwell on who said no. 

If you’re starting the college search process right now, I know it might seem like USC or Duke or Brown is the only college where you could ever be happy.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to fall in love with a dream school, especially if it keeps you engaged and excited about your college process.  

But try to remember that no matter what happens, this is all going someplace good.  You’re going to get into college.  You’re going to move into a dorm and meet new friends and take classes you actually want to take.  You’re bound to have a good report for anyone who checks in to see how your college life is going, whether or not your school is a famous one.  

For counselors: How to get students and parents to read what you email

I send a monthly “Collegewise Parent Email Newsletter” to families in our program who ask to receive it.  And our counselors occasionally send group emails to all of their students with important reminders, especially when it wouldn’t make sense to email each student individually to say exactly the same thing.   I thought I’d share a couple things we’ve learned through trial and error about how to get more of our families to actually read what we send.  I’m hoping it might be useful to high school counselors or other private counselors who are taking the time to send good information and would like even more of your students and parents to take the time to read it.

1. Send emails worth reading.

The best way to train people to read your emails is to send them emails worth reading.  I’ve made the mistake of sending out a monthly newsletter just because it was time to send it out, not because I had something particularly profound to say.   That’s always a mistake.  Every email you send trains people to either look forward to or ignore future emails from you.  So never send an email just so you can say you sent something—send it when you have something important or timely to share.  Nobody’s going to complain that you aren’t emailing them often enough.  And if they do complain, you must be doing something right—your emails are so good that people miss them when they don’t arrive.

2. Get permission.

You can send out something with great information your families can’t get anywhere else—but emails that people didn’t ask to get always have a faint whiff of spam no matter how great the content is.  So I only send our parent newsletter to families who specifically ask to receive it.  We let them register for it on our enrollment form.  And whenever I reference “Those of you who get my newsletters may remember…” during seminars, I always get a few more families who ask to be put on the list.   Making people ask means you’re always sending to people who want to hear from you.  And if they don’t read or like what you send, then you know it’s time to come up with a different strategy.    

3. Write for selfish readers.

Email is a selfish business—we all read messages from the angle of “What’s in it for me?”  If you send your freshmen the same email you send seniors with advice about writing college essays, your freshmen will delete it.  And worse, they’ll be less likely to open your next message.  So you really have two options.  One is to segment your audience so different groups get specific emails meant only for them.  If you can do that, great.  But that’s not an easy thing for a counselor with a large caseload to do.  The other option is to organize your content by group.  Write a short paragraph for each grade level (and let parents have their own paragraph) so people can skip what doesn’t apply to them.  If it’s a newsletter, write the short summary paragraphs and then insert a link that will take interested readers to a more thorough write up.  The key is to let people find the information that matters to them fast.  If they can’t, they’re going to delete it.  

4. Be brief.

If we send our students a two-page email with all of our best advice about how to start the Common Application, most of them won’t read it.  It’s not our fault (or theirs).  Long emails or newsletters don’t get read because kids and parents are suffering from e-information overload.  The best way to fight through the clutter is to keep emails to one screen (no need to scroll through to read them) and share only what’s essential.  You don’t have to list all 30 of the new scholarships your office has applications for.  Just mention that you have applications for 30 scholarships totaling over $40,000 in potential free money for college—the interested students will notice that.  Get right to the point and make it forcefully. 

5. Find a good subject line.

We’ve all spent the time to write a great piece we then introduced with a subject line like, “October Newsletter.”  A generic subject line screams, “generic email.”  Your subject line should entice your audience to open the message.  So give them a taste of what’s to come, but leave some room for appropriate intrigue.  “7th semester transcript and midyear report reminder” isn’t going to make people stop, click, and read.  But, “Seniors, your college apps are incomplete without these final forms…” does a better job.