College yesterday, and today

I’m heading to Austin today to hang out with two old college buddies.  Today, one’s a financial officer for our alma mater’s business school.  The other is a heart surgeon and the subject of a past blog entry.

But to me, they’ll always be my college buddies, the same guys who crammed into a 1991 Mazda 323 with me and three other friends (it’s not easy to fit five guys into a ’91 Mazda 323) and drove 2 hours to San Diego to see The Eagles reunion tour in 1994.  That's the sort of thing you do in college.  The cars (and the bands) may change, but the activities stay the same from collegiate generation to generation.

You don’t need to go to an Ivy League school to be successful…or to meet and keep great college friends. 

Product Highlight: How to make your Common Application a lot less common

CommonAppGuideImage Last week, we released “How to Make your 2011-12 Common Application a Lot Less Common:  The Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.”  Today, I thought I’d share a little more about the piece, how and why we created it, and offer up some suggested uses for students, parents and counselors. 

What was the big idea?

We knew the Common App guide was something that we needed ourselves at Collegewise.  Every year, our counselors sit down individually with our students to walk them through the Common Application.  Spending that hour with each of them helps our students get it right the first time and lets us share our advice that’s come from years of helping students and, for many of our counselors, from reading Common Applications as admissions officers.

But some of our counselors have more experience with the Common Application than others.  How could we make sure we all had access to their perspective?  How could we best train new counselors who needed to learn the Collegewise approach to the Common App?  And what about those students whose schedules limit the number of meetings they can have with us?  How could we distill all our best advice and put it into one easily accessible place where any Collegewise student or counselor could access it?  We knew our Common App guide could address all of these issues.  And we knew if it helped us, it would probably help other students and counselors outside of Collegewise, too.

The process

After the 2011-12 Common Application was released in July, we held two 2-hour trainings at our office in Irvine for our counselors and assistant counselors.  Allison walked us through every line of the Common Application and addressed all the common questions our students tend to have.  Arun then shared all of his insights he’s gained after spending years reading Common Applications as an admissions officer, and then from later helping students on this side of the desk as a college counselor.  He’d created a sample Common App to really show all of us—visually—the noticeable difference it can make for a reader when a student follows our Collegewise advice.  And as the elder statesman at Collegewise, I chimed in with extra tidbits about the Collegewise way of doing this, and how our students could use more of our advice to make their Common Applications stand out.  I had my laptop with me to write down all of our thoughts and suggestions, and at the end of the training, I got to work organizing all of that information.

Getting the right permissions

While Arun reviewed my write up and added his own suggestions and revisions, I contacted the research department at the Common Application, told them about our idea and what we were trying to make, and asked for permission to use screenshots of our sample Common App in the piece.  Once I got authorization from the Common App folks, I got to work inserting the screenshots and formatting the piece. 

Our finished work

It took nearly two months for us to finish the piece, much longer than we expected.  But in the end, we were really happy with the result.  We’ve produced thousands of pages of material for our programs since 1999, and we think this is the best, most comprehensive thing we’ve ever made.

How we’re using it

We’ve shared our Common App guide with all of our counselors in our four offices.  Now everyone has access to the same Collegewise insight, and they can share it with our students.    Every family in our Collegewise program also gets an access code to download a free version.  So for students who’d prefer not to add another meeting to the schedule, or those who’d rather spend their meetings with us talking about other things, they can use the guide at home and complete the application on their own for us to review.  We’re also using it in our new online counseling programs to minimize the number of hours a family needs to buy to actually meet with us online (students can do the app on their own and use our meeting time to review it).  And in the future, we’ll update the guide each year to reflect any changes to the Common Application.  And we’ll use the feedback we’ve gotten from students and counselors to make our new version even better.

How you can use it 

Here are a few ways students, parents and counselors could use it.


  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line by line review before you submit.  Take our suggestions and revise your app as you see fit.
  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help.  We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • Maybe you’re struggling with just one particular section?  Our guide can probably help. 


  • Some parents take the role of the college application manager and reviewer in the house.  If that’s you, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application.  Better yet, pass it along to them and let your student use it from the start. 

High school counselors

  • Even if you’ve never read a Common Application before, you can be a virtual expert in just an hour if you read our guide. 
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App?  Keep a copy of our guide on your desk to use whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Read our guide and then do a Common App workshop for your staff or your students.
  • Encourage your fellow counselors to buy their own copy of the guide, or have your school buy a 30-copy license so each member of your counseling and teaching staff can have their own copy.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing each of your students' Common Applications.
  • Buy one or more 30-copy licenses and share our guide with all your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.   
  • Do you have partners, counselors or interns who work with students?  Read our guide and then train them yourself.  Or buy a 30-copy site license to distribute our guide to them. 

The finished product
We’re proud of this product.  We worked hard on it.  The high school counselors and admissions officers we’ve shared it with have given us great feedback.  And the general public is buying it.  We’re selling 5-10 of them a day, and we expect those numbers are going to increase as we get deeper into application season and thousands of students who haven’t yet started their applications get down to business. 

Where to get it
Our Common App guide is 62 pages, sold as a downloadable PDF for $12.99, or $99 for a 30-copy license.  You can buy your own copy here, or view a free preview version here:

Download PreviewCollegewiseGuideToThe2011-12CommonApplication 

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.