Choose your critics

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 get the lead 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).

What is school really for?

I think that students should have incredibly high expectations for their lives, and for their future colleges’ roles in helping them realize those dreams.  That’s why I preach so often here that what you do in college will be more important than the name of the college you attend.  Going to a prestigious school used to put you at the front of the line for future success.  But the world has changed now.  With so many college graduates and so much access to information, a degree from Harvard alone isn’t as important as what you can actually do, whether or not you can lead, and your ability to solve interesting problems.

Today, Seth Godin released a free ebook, Stop Stealing Dreams (What is School for?).  It’s not all about colleges.  And it’s not a full-throated bashing of our educational system.  It’s an argument that schools were originally created to educate students for a world that has since changed dramatically.  It’s not just time for schools to catch up; it’s time for students to change your expectations of what you want and need from your education.

I’ll let you read it and judge for yourselves and join the debate.   But here are three parts I found interesting:

On the allure of famous colleges


Spend time around suburban teenagers and their parents, and pretty soon the discussion will head inexorably to the notion of going to a “good college.”  Harvard, of course, is a good college. So is Yale. Add to the list schools like Notre Dame and Middlebury.  How do we know that these schools are good?  If you asked me if a Mercedes is a good car compared to, say, a Buick, by most measures we could agree that the answer is yes. Not because of fame or advertising, but because of the experience of actually driving the car, the durability, the safety—many of the things we buy a car for.  The people who are picking the college, though, the parents and the students about to invest four years and nearly a quarter of a million dollars—what are they basing this choice on?  Do they have any data at all about the long-term happiness of graduates?  These schools aren’t necessarily good. What they are is famous…Famous colleges are part of the labeling and ranking system, but have virtually nothing to do with the education imparted or the long-term impact of the education received.  If you need the label to accomplish your goals, go get the label.  Either way, we ought to hold colleges to a much higher standard when it comes to transformative education.  For starters, though, start using the word 'famous' when your instinct is to say 'good.'”

On college as an opportunity to do more than just get a degree


In the post-industrial age of connection, though, the slotting and the scarcity are far less important. We care a great deal about what you’ve done, less about the one-word alumnus label you bought. Because we can see whom you know and what they think of you, because we can see how you’ve used the leverage the Internet has given you, because we can see if you actually are able to lead and actually are able to solve interesting problems—because of all these things, college means something new now.

And an interesting idea to let students learn by doing the coaching themselves


So let’s de-professionalize. Have a student (or a rotating cast of students) be the coach. And let students be the high school recruiters. And let students be the managers of as many elements of the stadium, the press box, and the concessions as possible.  And let’s have the director of the college musical be a student as well.  And the person in charge of logistics for homecoming.  Just about all of these jobs can be done by students. What would that lead to?  Well, first we’d have to get truly serious about giving these students the background and support to do these jobs well. Interesting to note that kids in college plays have taken ten years or more of drama classes, but the student director probably has no mentor, no rigor, and no background in doing his job. We’ve rarely taught students how to do anything that involves plotting a new course.  Would you be interested in hiring the kid who coached the team that won the Rose Bowl? How about working for someone who had handled logistics for five hundred employees at a 50,000-seat stadium? Or having your accounting done by someone who learned the craft tracking a million dollars’ worth of ticket sales?  Is there a better way to learn than by doing?"

Don’t miss the bigger lessons


Going to college should be about experiencing as much academically as you can, but more importantly, it should be about learning how to learn, and recognizing that learning is a lifelong endeavor.  School isn’t the end of the learning process.  It’s purely a training ground and a beginning.  In my humble opinion, once you have learned how to learn, then you can try as many differnet things as you can, recognizing that you don't have to find your destiny at any given age–you just have to be prepared to run with it when you do.

Mark Cuban,  Indiana University Bloomington grad and owner of the Dallas Mavericks
How to Win at the Sport of Business

Where new counselors can go to learn about college admissions

We’ve heard from many of our high school counseling friends that their graduate degree programs didn’t cover any material about college admissions.  Once they started working in a high school setting, they got their college advising knowledge by teaching themselves, asking colleagues, and learning as they went, all of which can make for a long and challenging learning curve.

If you’re a new high school counselor (or about to become one), or if you’d just like some additional training, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) has two upcoming programs you might be interested in. 

Critical Components: Mastering the College Admission Process
May 29-June 1 2012
Nashville, TN

The price is $300, but for grad students, it’s just $150.  All the information is here

College Counseling Boot Camp
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
8:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Nashville, TN

This one-day program is free.   All the information is here.

I’m not involved with either of these programs and neither is Collegewise (in fact, we’ve been thinking about doing something like this ourselves).  But NACAC is a good organization and these workshops could really help the right counselors do an even better job for their kids.

How your online presence could help you get into college

After yesterday’s post about creating an online presence you can be proud of, I got to thinking about just what a big opportunity this could be for high school applicants. 

Unless a college specifically invites you to send them extra materials (some do), admissions officers don’t want to receive your short stories, recordings, paintings, poems, videos, newspaper clippings, or freshly-baked cookies.  Anything unsolicited is generally seen as more presumptuous than impressive and is quickly tossed aside (or eaten, as might be the case with the cookies).

But imagine if you were able to write on your application:

“I write a blog about my experiences working as editor of our school paper.  It gets over 50,000 page views a month and has 700 subscribers.” 

“Over 5,000 people have downloaded my cookie recipes from my website.”

“My YouTube videos explaining how to throw various types of softball pitches have been viewed more than 100,000 times.” 

If your stats are compelling enough, you’ll pique admissions officers’ curiosities to the point they just might go to a computer to check out your blog or recipes or videos.  And even if they don’t, you’ll still be presenting some convincing arguments that you’re the type of person who can make an impact.

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.