The deep end of the waitlist discussion

Parke Muth is a former associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia and an independent college counselor. In his most recent blog post, he gives one of the frankest, most thorough discussions of the admissions waitlist—what it means, why colleges use them, and how to determine your odds of being moved to a yes.

This is not “Five Easy Tips to Improve your Odds of Being Taken off the Waitlist.” Muth wades into the deep end and actually explains both the reasoning and the numbers behind this policy that’s become so rampant at selective colleges.

I did particularly enjoy this advice, which echoes a lot of my own from past posts:

“To me, most students would be much better off taking the time to embrace the school they have paid a deposit to attend. Start wearing the school sweatshirt, start filling out all the stuff that the schools send, gets on the entering class Facebook page etc. Start imaging a great life ahead instead of focusing on what will likely not happen.”

Some of the statistics and harsh truths might be difficult for students stuck on a waitlist to read right now. But as much as it might give you some relief to be encouraged, I think it’s just as important to give you useful, honest information that can actually help you make good decisions (especially when the college that waitlisted you has only given you a “maybe”).

The training starts now

Parents of high school underclassmen, imagine if you spent the next year (or two years, or three years) feeding or even initiating your student’s desire to go to the senior prom with any member on the short list of the class’s most popular kids.

Maybe if we get you the right clothes, she’ll be more likely to say yes?

I heard he likes athletes, so you should definitely keep playing basketball.

I know some people who can introduce you to her parents. If you make a great impression, that should definitely help your chances. 

If the big senior prom match doesn’t come to fruition, your student will have a long way to bounce back.

Sure, you could say all the right things about it being their loss, there are plenty of fish in the sea, anyone who can’t see how special your student is doesn’t deserve to date them, etc. But you’ve also got a lot of history to unravel. All that time spent building up the supposed ideal choices will make it a lot harder to let those choices go when they’re no longer available.

This month, college admissions news is arriving for seniors. And while there will be lots of celebrating, there will also be plenty of disappointment, even heartbreak. Every one of those students will bounce back eventually. But some will do so much faster than others. Those who embraced the idea that what a student does in college is more important than where they do it, who viewed the process as an exciting journey rather than an arms race, who are excited about all the learning, growth, and fun that will likely be found at any of the schools that ended up on their list, those are the families who will move past this bad news and quickly focus on the good.

But the families who spent much of their college search focusing only on a short list of famous colleges, who’ve built up the idea in their mind that an admission to one of those schools is the necessary validation for all their hard work, those are the students (and parents) who will have a longer period of admissions decision mourning.

Freshman, sophomore, and junior families, you’ll make the process a lot more enjoyable and successful, and you’ll be far more likely to push through any admissions disappointment quickly, if you lay the groundwork now. Find the enjoyment in the process. Look for the right schools, not just the famous ones. And reinforce that the opportunity to go to any college is just that, an opportunity. There is no such thing as an admissions decision that leaves a student ruined—or all set—for life.

Essays, applications, interviews–all of that can wait until later. But the attitude and approach to the process? That training starts now.

A different March Madness

The folks at Challenge Success just released their spring newsletter, which includes an archived piece, March Madness, from co-founder Madeline Levine about how to create a supportive environment for students who have received college rejections. And I particularly appreciated this advice:

“Instead of crying over rejections, we should be celebrating acceptances with our kids in March… The best guarantees of success for our children—not at the end of the grading period, not when they get into college—but twenty years down the line when they move into their adult lives, have to do with real involvement with learning (not just going through the motions,) a good emotional foundation and good values. Their college acceptances have nothing, or little, to do with your parenting. This is about your child. And they should feel good about moving towards one of the greatest transitions in their lives. Wherever your kid gets into college this month, go out and celebrate.”

Writing before meeting

If you’re an executive at Amazon and you want to pitch a new idea to your colleagues, you’ll have some writing—and they’ll have some reading—to do.

Here’s what often happens in your typical meeting. Someone has an idea, maybe one they haven’t taken all that much time to think through, and they share it with the group. Or they might bring a PowerPoint deck that includes bulleted facts to support their vision. Discussions, questions, objections, etc. ensue. But in the end, nobody feels ready to say yes to the idea. There are too many questions, too many unknowns, and not a clear enough picture of what the idea would actually look like in practice. And the only decision reached is to discuss the idea—again—at a future meeting.

Amazon avoids this version of new idea limbo with “narratives.”

Anyone with a new idea must first lay out their argument in a memo of no longer than six pages. It’s not just a description; they address the assertions, assumptions, benefits, risks, and suggested next steps. And the idea is not shared in advance—it’s shared at the beginning of the meeting. At the start of the meeting, everyone reads the memo and makes notes in the margins. When everyone is finished reading, they ask the writer questions for 30-45 minutes. And best of all, at the end of the meeting, a decision is reached—yes, no, or a next step like gathering missing information.

Here are the benefits to this approach:

1. It makes ideas stronger.

It’s harder to write a convincing argument than it is to float a half-formed idea in a meeting. That’s intentional. The narrative forces people to really think about their idea, to consider not just the potential benefits but also the risks and the reasons it might not work (because you know you’ll need to answer those questions). As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos describes it in this article:

“Full sentences are harder to write [than bullets in a PowerPoint presentation]… They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Most of us would not voluntarily listen to a presentation if the speaker told us, “I haven’t prepared exactly what I want to say today, so I’m just going to start talking and see where it goes.” So why should we allow it in a meeting? The narrative imposes discipline before discussion.

2. It respects colleagues’ time.
Too often, a group’s approach to getting things done is “Let’s have a meeting.” But time is a precious commodity. And group meetings—especially when they include meandering discussions about half-formed ideas that ultimately don’t lead to decisions—are often gigantic time-wasters. The narrative means that if you don’t feel ready to present your pitch in writing, if you’re not ready to defend it in front of the group, then you don’t call the meeting. You can use that time to prepare. And you’ve respected your colleagues’ time by letting them do their work in the meantime.

3. It leads to faster, better decisions.
How many meetings have you sat through that were all talk and no follow-up action? The point of discussing just about anything in a group meeting is to make a decision of some kind. Sometimes the decision is a no. But that’s still a decision, a much more definitive one than the standard, “Let’s continue this discussion next week (at which point many of us will simply repeat what we said this week).”

You don’t have to adopt Amazon’s narrative to make your meetings more productive. In fact, you could improve most meetings with just a few simple steps.

  • Remember that any meeting is taking time from all the participants. 5-10 people spending an hour together is actually 5-10 hours of time that could have been spent doing something else. If you’re going to have meetings, make your meetings count.
  • Don’t have standing meetings that happen whether or not there’s anything worth discussing. Have a meeting only when you need to have a meeting.
  • Are you meeting just to get a group update on what everyone has been doing? Why not have colleagues just write a paragraph or two (not an Amazon narrative-style argument, just a simple description) and share it ahead of time?
  • If you want to share an idea just to get feedback, share it with a few key people first. Get their thoughts, objections, and concerns. This is like doing a focus group. You’ll have a chance to refine your idea before you bring it to the meeting. In fact, you might be able to line those key people up as supporters before then.
  • Measure your meetings by the decisions made. If the only decision made is to have another meeting, that’s not a decision. Decisions are yes, no, or a specific step to gather whatever is preventing you from making the decision today.

The pre-judgment problem

Seth Godin’s recent post, “Our pre-judgment problem,” shares several examples of how people and organizations use the wrong metrics to judge people, including:

The SAT is a poor indicator of college performance, but most colleges use it anyway.

Famous colleges aren’t correlated with lifetime success or happiness, but we push our kids to seek them out.

The good news?

1. According to FairTest, “a record 900 accredited, bachelor-degree institutions say they will make decisions about all or many applicants without considering ACT or SAT test scores.”

2. Families can decide for themselves whether or not to push kids to seek out famous colleges.

Great benefits…and great writing

Zapier, an 8o-person startup that automates workflow between different applications, just started offering a “de-location package” for new employees in which they’ll reimburse up to $10,000 to help new hires currently living in the San Francisco Bay area relocate. To anywhere.

The initiative is innovative (it’s gotten some press). It makes sense for Zapier (they’re a 100% remote company). But what struck me was the utter lack of business-speak in the explanation—which was written by the company’s co-founder and CEO. Even the fine print reads like human communication that hasn’t been overly formalized by lawyers and PR reps.

“Some fine print: The $10,000 will be a reimbursement for moving expenses you incur in the first three months while working at Zapier. We also ask you stick around Zapier for at least a year. We want to make a commitment to you, so we think it’s fair you do the same. Right now we’re limiting this to folks wanting to make the move away from the Bay Area. We know other cities are expensive to live in too, but this is an experiment for us so we want to see how it goes before expanding the program.”

We all communicate in different voices—even in writing—depending on who we’re communicating with. The email you send to your best friend won’t sound the same as the one you send to your high school principal. Great communicators understand who their audience is and proceed accordingly.

But whether you’re writing an email, a memo, new website copy, or a college essay, if you strip out the voice, delete the personality, and add unnecessary formality, what you’ll be left with is:

1. Sentences that you (and pretty much anyone else) would never say out loud to another person.
2. Bad writing.

When in doubt, communicate like a human. Choose your words. And write like you’re talking to an audience of one.


Long-term payoff

My senior year of high school, our boys basketball team won the league title. But on a team full of all-leaguers and future college players, the fan favorite was a scrappy junior on the bench named Dave. He didn’t get much playing time. But when Dave would enter the game, that’s when the show—and the cheering—would start.

Dave would play his 12 or 8 or 2 minutes like he might never get the chance to set foot on the court again. He’d play frenetic defense. He’d dive to the floor for every loose ball. He’d even run to and from the time-out huddles like it was a race. His energy and enthusiasm were so contagious that the fans in the stands (of which I was one) couldn’t wait for him to get the call-up to enter the game.

I still remember the game when an opponent stole the ball. Dave chased him down the full length of the court like his life was on the line, and managed to block what should have been a sure layup. Dave—and the home court fans—celebrated like he’d just won the Super Bowl for us.

It turns out that all that hustle off the bench didn’t go unnoticed. I stumbled on this podcast last week and learned that Dave spent his senior year as our starting point guard, then played three years of junior college basketball before chasing—and reaching—his dream of playing for a Division I basketball team—Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Today, Dave is an academic advisor at UNLV. And I’m sure that he still retains and employs all those characteristics he developed coming off the bench back in high school—the work ethic, scrappy hustle, the spirit and the willingness to do what it takes to create opportunities. I can’t imagine a better example to set for college—and high school—students.

I write often here about the importance of making an impact, on becoming such an indispensable part of what you’re doing that people would miss you if you were gone. That high school basketball team in 1989 would not have been the same—for the players, coaches, or fans–without Dave coming off the bench. But imagine if someone had discouraged Dave from continuing to play the game he so clearly loved.

You’re just riding the bench. Good colleges won’t appreciate this. You should go start a club or volunteer or do something else that will look good on your college application.

What a loss that would have been.

Twenty years from now, most of today’s high school students will not be able to look back and draw a predictable straight line between their past high school activity and what will have become their career. But you probably will be able to trace the development of your skills, characteristics, talents, and other qualities that aren’t encapsulated on a transcript or a test score report.

Some involvements have an immediate payoff in the form of honors, awards, or other accolades. But the effort, passion, commitment, and resilience to keep going—those are the rewards that pay off over time.

For those playing the admissions waiting game

Kavita Varma-White, a parent whose senior is completing the college admissions process, posted 8 things I wish I’d known about the college admissions waiting game on the Today Show’s website. I found her advice sensible and timely. And of course, I enjoyed the shout out to Collegewise counselor Tom Barry in point 8, where Varma-White writes about celebrating every offer of admission.

How to get to the point

Basecamp’s Dan Kim shares “the single best way to improve your writing” here. From emails, to website copy, to college essays, I can’t think of a piece of writing where the advice doesn’t apply.

Just stop doing it

I enjoyed Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. But to me, something about one early passage in particular just didn’t sit right. In 1962 when Knight was first getting the tiny company off the ground, he recalls having this realization while on a run:

“So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea [about starting a shoe company] crazy… just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop. That’s the precocious, prescient, urgent advice I managed to give myself, out of the blue, and somehow managed to take. Half a century later, I believe it’s the best advice—maybe the only advice—any of us should ever give.”

And he kept coming back to that theme repeatedly, pointing to it as the guiding principle, the secret to his success.

We’ve all heard the mantra, “Never give up.” We’re taught not to be quitters, that sheer determination is what separates the people who achieve their goals and those who get left behind.

But here’s the thing that became clear as Knight recounted his story: Nike was successful in large part because Knight was willing to stop.

He stopped working a job as an accountant. Twice.

He stopped working as a professor at Portland State University.

In fact, Knight originally started his shoe company as the American distributor of Tiger brand running shoes manufactured in Japan. The Nike that we all know today only exists because Knight stopped selling the Tiger shoes and began manufacturing his own.

When you’re almost 80 years old, as Knight is, and you look back over your proudest and most significant accomplishments, from entrepreneurship to marriage, you’ll inevitably see a refusal to give up when things were difficult as an important ingredient in the success.

But achieving those milestones will mean letting go of other things that ultimately prove to mean less. Knight was focused, driven, and committed to the work that mattered the most. But he was also a quitter. A smart, tactical quitter. And it helped him and Nike get where they are today.

That’s what kept nagging at me with each passing chapter.

Then, in the final pages of the book, as Knight looks back and ponders the unlikely story of his “crazy idea” growing into Nike, a tale with all the successes enjoyed and the failures overcome, he reflects:

“And those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up? Charlatans. Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t ever stop.”

There it is. It’s not necessarily wrong to stop one thing. Sometimes stopping something is the key to succeeding in something else. Just don’t stop permanently.

“Just do it” was a great Nike slogan. But it turns out that “Just stop doing it” can be a pretty effective strategy, too.

Here are a few past posts, here and here, for high school students on the potential value of quitting. And a final one to make sure that you don’t end up punishing the people staying behind when you decide to move on.