On teenage resiliency

On 9/11/2001, I was scheduled to speak at a National Charity League meeting that night.  It was hard to imagine anyone being in the mood to talk about the minutia of how to get into college on that terrible day.  Something about it just felt wrong.

But those kids forged ahead at the meeting.  They conducted their usual business, turned it over to me, and then asked just as many questions as they always ask.  They were just as interested and engaged as they always are.  The parents and I were the shaken ones.  These kids were ready to get down to business.

What they were doing was actually pretty admirable and mature.  There wasn’t anything wrong with a student thinking about college on 9/11.  The reality was that they still needed to go become whatever it was they were going to become.  Their goals for the future had become even more important, not less.  

Teenagers are remarkably resilient, especially with all-things-college-admissions (applications to NYU actually increased that same fall of 2001).  It’s one of the benefits of being seventeen with your whole life in front of you.  For students reading this, I know you might be sure that there is only one college on the planet where you could ever see yourself going.  And all the talk about APs and SAT scores and how hard it is to get into college today probably makes you feel like the stakes are incredibly high.  Just remember that you’re going to be fine. Not everybody gets into his or her first choice school.  But every year, those kids bounce back fast.  It’s hard not to as long as you’ve got other colleges to pick from.

And parents, remember that your kids might be even more resilient than you are when it comes to college matters.  Don’t take that away from them.  Don’t let your own college anxieties spill out and ruin the process for your family.  Don’t make it all about whether or not Cornell says yes.  Make it about raising a happy, nice kid who’s excited about her college future at whatever school is lucky enough to get her.  

When colleges like questions as much as they like answers

When college applications and interviewers ask you why you want to attend their particular school, don’t forget to tell them what you don’t know (and are hoping to find out).

Learning and self-discovery are important parts of college.  So it’s normal—and actually admirable—to point out what you don’t know and are hoping to learn, like:

  • What would my life be like if I left my small town and moved to a big city?
  • Would I really enjoy studying physics every day?
  • Could I become a good enough writer to contribute to the school newspaper?
  • Do I really love math as much as my older brother at MIT does?
  • What am I going to be able to accomplish that my parents couldn't now that I’m the first one in our family who will go to college?
  • What subjects will I love that I haven’t even found yet?
  • What will it be like if I have a roommate who grew up very differently than I did?
  • Am I a liberal just because my parents are liberal, or will I learn enough in college to be more confident about what my own personal politics are?
  • Will I love being a premed?
  • Where will I get to go on a road trip with friends?
  • What will I get to do in New York City that I’ve never done before growing up in Iowa?
  • What will I get to do in Iowa that I’ve never done before growing up in New York City?

 If you already knew everything, there’d be no reason to go to college.  So don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re answering, “Why do you want to come to school here?

A few thoughts about quitting

Successful people actually quit things all the time.  They’re just really good at knowing what to quit and when to do it.

In The One Thing You Need to Know, author Marcus Buckingham says that the key to sustained success and happiness is, “Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it.”

Stanford Professor Jim Collins shares in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t:

Most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding ‘to do’ lists, trying to build momentum by doing, doing, doing—and doing more. And it rarely works. Those who built the good-to-great companies, however, made as much use of ‘stop doing’ lists as ‘to do’ lists.”

Seth Godin wrote a book about how to recognize when it’s worth pushing through a challenge, and when it’s better to quit.  Turns out, successful people are good at making that distinction.

And the least influential on this list by far wrote a past post about quitting.

As you head back to school and think about all the things you want to accomplish, you might also consider quitting a thing or two.

What not to do when emailing admissions officers

Question from a parent at one of our seminars last weekend:

“My friend’s private counselor (not from Collegewise) advises her students to attach a photo to any email that they send to an admissions officer.  She said that’s a good way to stand out and make them remember you.  But it sounded odd to me.  Is that really a good idea?”

Nope. Not a good idea. 

This is college admissions, not online dating.  And I'm pretty sure every admissions officer I've ever met would feel, well, pretty weird receiving photos from teenagers they've never met. 

Here’s a post from last year about how to write a good email.

Are you like Steve Jobs in a meeting?

When the Segway design team wanted some initial feedback on their prototype, they brought in Steve Jobs (Apple's now-retired CEO).  Here’s what happened in the first 30 seconds.


‘Good morning to everyone,’  said Tim, smiling at the front of the table. ‘Before we start, we'd like to ask you to hold your questions until after each presentation…Each pitch is about ten minutes.’

‘I can't do that,’ said Jobs. ‘I'm not built that way. So if you want me to leave, I will.  But I can't just sit here.’

From Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos meet "Ginger"

When you sit in class, are you like Steve Jobs in a meeting?  Do you want to ask questions and participate? Or can you just sit there and be perfectly happy?  Neither approach is right or wrong.  But your answer to that question will tell you a lot about which colleges are right for you. 

Lessons from the Wine Guy

Yesterday, Gary Vaynerchuk did his final episode of The Daily Grape, his daily online video show featuring passionate wine education and Gary’s personal wine recommendations. Wine isn’t usually a topic for a college admissions blog, but Gary did his first show (originally entitled Wine Library TV) on February 21, 2006.   And he went on to do over 1,000 episodes that routinely drew over 100,000 viewers every day.  I think students, counselors and business owners can learn a lot from Gary’s example.  

1. He’s passionate about what he does.

Watch any of Gary’s shows and you can tell he doesn’t just love wine; he loves educating people about wine.  He’s not phoning it in—he’s throwing his energy and enthusiasm into it.  He’s barely restrained.  There’s no faking that kind of passion.  You get the sense that he’d do this even if there were absolutely no business upside to it.  That’s exactly how successful college applicants should pursue their activities.  Play soccer or write poetry or volunteer at the hospital because you love to do it, not because you’re hoping it will help you get into Cornell.   Of course, that kind of passion without regard for how it will look to colleges is what usually produces the most successful college applicants.  And that’s why Gary’s videos brought in millions of dollars of revenue to his family’s wine business.

2.  He wasn’t trying to please everybody.

Gary can’t stand stuffy, pretentious wine snobs.  He doesn’t believe you have to spend $60 to get a good bottle of wine (that's why he reviewed great $12 bottles).  He wanted to make wine less intimidating to the uninitiated.  That’s why he used terms like “Sniffy Sniff” and “My big-ass glass.”  That point of view means that lots of people, especially the wine snobs, aren’t Gary fans.  And he’s totally OK with that.  He wasn't trying to win everybody over.  He was appealing to the people who are most likely to appreciate him for exactly who he is.  That’s how students should pick colleges.  Don’t try to mold yourself into something that all colleges will like.  Instead, pick colleges that fit you and who will appreciate you for who you really are.  Private counselors should do the same thing with their businesses.  Don’t try to be all things to all people.  Instead, be honest and open about the types of families you love to work with.  Politely turn away (or fire) those families who are predisposed not to like what you do and refer them to someone who will be a better fit.  Then focus all your energy on pleasing those customers who are inclined to love what you do the most.

3.  He marketed by sharing.

Gary understood that the best way to demonstrate his expertise was to share it liberally.  So he gave away his knowledge and recommendations for free to anyone who would listen.  He didn’t charge people to watch.  He wasn’t worried that someone was going to rip him off and start a competing online wine TV show.  Gary out-shared, out-taught and out-contributed the competition.  When you market by sharing like this, people come to trust you.  And that’s when your business grows.   When they’ve learned from you for free, they’re more likely to pay you to learn more.  Private counselors should follow Gary’s example and share as much as possible.  You don’t have to give your services away.  But sharing will lead to more sales than selling will.

4. He built an audience.

His willingness to share helped Gary build a huge, loyal audience.  Every day, he did a show from his office that 100,000 people tuned to hear what he had to say.  And it didn’t cost him anything.  He didn’t have to advertise.  He didn’t have to spam them.  He didn’t buy mailing lists or set up a table at conferences.  He built an audience who gave him their attention.  His most fervent fans even called themselves “Vayniacs.”  You can’t buy that kind of loyalty with advertising and marketing.  You have to earn it by showing up, sharing and building trust.  And Gary always knew that as long as he was making the Vayniacs happy, he’d have a good business.  Share, build an audience, delight your most loyal fans, and repeat the cycle.   That’s a good formula for any small business.  

5. He was great enough to be missed.

At the time I’m writing this, 731 people have commented on Gary’s final show.  They're thanking him for opening their eyes to new wines, revealing how much his daily shows have become a part of their lives, and telling him how much they’re going to miss him.  People are sad to see him stop broadcasting.  The Vayniacs are heartbroken.  What better way to measure whether or not you’ve done a great job?  If I stopped posting this daily blog tomorrow, would 731 people thank me and tell me they were sorry to see me go?  Nope—but it’s a great goal to shoot for.  Whether you’re a student running the Spanish Club, a counselor working at a high school or a private counselor running a business, let’s show up every day and do the kind of job that will make people miss us when we eventually move on to something else like Gary did today.

By the way, Gary graduated from Mt. Ida College.  He didn’t need to go to a famous college to be successful.  And neither do you. 

The problem with anonymous advice

A student at one of our free seminars yesterday asked:

“Someone on an online college admissions chat I read said that it’s a good idea to insert a picture of yourself into your essay, or to say ‘thank you’ with a smiley face at the end, just as a way to make your essay a little more memorable.  Is that really a good idea?”

My advice?  Get off the online chats.

This was obviously a nice, smart kid. He deserves better than (bad) advice from anonymous online posters.

College admissions is a subject for which lots of people are quick to give free advice even when they have no idea what they are talking about.  But anonymous online advice is the worst kind because you don’t know them, and they don’t know (or care about) you.

High school counselors, private counselors, admissions officers, even your older brother or sister who’s been through the process and can share what they learned—these people know something about college admissions.  But more importantly, they care about you.  They care about their professional reputations.  They’ve got a personal stake in seeing you succeed.

Learning about and asking for advice about college admissions is a good thing.  But one of the reasons this process has gotten so confusing is that there’s almost too much information and advice available.  The first step towards making sense of all this might be to ignore the stuff from anonymous sources and people who don’t work in college admissions.  Get your advice from people you know who are also in-the-know.

Free workshops in Irvine, Calif., on 8/20 and 8/27

On 8/20 and 8/27 in our Irvine, CA offices, we've decided to film videos of Arun and me doing our most popular Collegewise seminars.  Collegewise families and their special guests have already had the opportunity to register, but we've got a few seats left at two of the seminars (and we can’t possibly unleash our full Hollywood speaking potential to anything less than a packed house).  So we're opening them up to the public now until the seats are full.  

Here are the available seminars and the information for how to register.

Saturday, August 20

How to Write Great College Essays
11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

A lot of good kids write bad college essays about how soccer taught them the importance of teamwork, or how they struggled to adapt to strange cultures during a trip to Paris.  Come to this seminar to learn what admissions officers want (and don't want) to read, and how to identify stories that will make your application stand out.  I'll be doing this seminar. 

Saturday, August 27

College Admissions 201: Admission to The Most Selective Colleges
11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

This seminar will teach you how schools like the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, Duke, and the rest of the nation’s most selective colleges make decisions from pools full of the most qualified applicants.  And it will feature Arun–a partner at Collegewise, a former Assistant Director of Admissions at Caltech and the University of Chicago, and a former admissions reader for UCLA.


The Collegewise offices: 
2081 Business Center Dr., #280, Irvine, CA 92612


Just drop an email to ocseminars@collegewise.com and tell us which seminars you’d like to attend and how many will be attending.  We'll set up an auto reply so you'll get a confirmation of your RSVP.  If the seminars fill up, I'll mention it here, and I'll change the auto-reply so new registrants will know that we were too full to accept their reservation.

Two important things before your register:

1.  All attendees will be required to sign a release form giving us permission to use your image in our video should the camera happen to pass over you during the presentation (don't worry–we won't be asking you to do anything other than enjoy yourselves).

2.  Once filming starts, we can't allow any late arrivals into the room.  We'll be closing the doors at the exact start time of the seminar, so please get here 10 minutes early.

We hope to see you here!

Why getting into college is like dating

Getting into college is a lot like dating.  There’s a lot of hard work and selection involved, but once you’re on that date, all you can do is relax, be yourself, and have the self-confidence to know that if it doesn’t ultimately work out, you’ll find love with someone else.

For the seniors who are about to start your college applications this fall, you’ve done all the hard work to get yourself the dates.  Now it’s time to pick the right colleges to ask out, not just based on looks or popularity, but the schools you believe could really make you happy.  Then you apply, relax, be yourself, and have enough self-confidence to know that if Yale says no, you'll just find your college soulmate in some other lucky school that said yes.