Where the good parts are waiting

Imagine if you’d spent three-and-a-half years of nearly full-time preparation to secure a date to the senior prom with one particular person. It would be almost impossible not to feel enormous gravity on the day you finally make the ask.

All the work and focus and dedication has come to this. Your friends are watching. Your family is watching. It’s finally here. No turning back now. Will it be a yes or no?

Of course, while the intensity of that drama will peak on that day, it will diminish every day after that. If you get a yes, you go to the prom together. If you get a no, you go to the prom with someone else. The drama of that one day is incongruous with the event itself. Getting a yes or no to the prom isn’t the same as getting a yes or no to whether or not you’ll receive a life-saving kidney transplant. But all the build-up sure can make it feel that way.

The day the decision from your dream college arrives is not unlike this.

Yes, your college education has a lot more long-term life consequences than your prom does. But when you’ve spent three years dreaming—and working toward the goal—of attending one school (or a short list of schools), the day that decision arrives will carry enormous gravity, especially given how many people close to you will want to know the answer, too.

But believe it or not, decision day will eventually prove to have been (almost) just another day. Whether your dream school says yes or no, the story that college will eventually hold in your life won’t be about this day at all. It will be about everything that happened next, how you went to that dream school—or how you found an even better fit someplace else–how you made new friends, how you found your calling, how you overcame unforeseen challenges, and how you learned and grew and had fun for four years.

Seniors, parents of seniors, and friends of those seniors, as decisions roll in, please try to remember that decision day is not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of one. And what happens next is where all the good parts are waiting.

Guidelines for emailing colleges

As juniors begin their college searches in earnest, it’s likely that you’ll have questions as you explore potential schools. And given that many (if not most) colleges will share an email address (usually monitored by the admissions office) where you can send questions, it’s important to remember that there are real people reading your inquiries so that you don’t inadvertently annoy the same people who may later read your application. So here are a few guidelines to start—and keep—you on the right email footing.

Please start with this past post about how to write a good email message. The advice applies to pretty much any email you write to someone who isn’t necessarily a friend or family member.

Then read this one with some more specific advice for emailing colleges.

Those two posts will tell you just about everything you need to know to write what will likely be a refreshingly good email message, and to avoid common mistakes.

But here’s one more tip—please respect their time.

Don’t ask a long list of 10, 12, or 20 questions. I often receive emails like this from people who are considering applying for a job at Collegewise, and it feels like I’m being asked to complete a homework assignment. If you have a question—or two, or maybe even three—ask them. But don’t turn your email into a written interrogation.

Also, try to ask questions that a person who has likely never met you could feasibly answer. Admissions officers know a lot about their colleges, but they likely know nothing about you. That’s why “Would it be better for me to major in biology or physics?” will likely be almost impossible for an admissions officer to answer responsibly. But, “If I would like to double major in biology and physics, would it be appropriate to indicate that on my application?” is a question that’s right in their wheelhouse.

My intention here is not to scare any student off from emailing a college. Don’t worry—you’d have to write something pretty inappropriate, offensive, or scary to actually damage your chances of admission with one or two emails.

But a student who (1) ignores these guidelines, and (2) does so over and over and over again will start to make a bad name for him or herself in the admissions office.

It’s called trustworthy for a reason

Less than a month before my younger brother’s high school graduation, my mother was getting concerned that he was never going to complete the service hours required to pass his government class. That angst wasn’t entirely without merit. I don’t remember the specifics of the requirement, but with 30 days to go, the math was definitely not in his favor.

So while I was on a visit home from college, my mom somehow convinced me to inquire about the service status, and if necessary, to prod my brother into action.

Let’s just say my intervention was not at all well received.

I can see points on both sides here. The service hours were required to pass the class. No pass, no graduation. That would have been a calamitous end to an otherwise successful high school career.

But my brother’s resolute determination not to field status inquiries just made my mother that much more anxious. Imagine if instead he’d replied,

“Mom, I’ve got straight A’s, I’m ranked #1 in my class, I’ve been accepted to Harvard, and you’ve never had to ask me to do my work. I know this project is important. I won’t come to you a month from now and break the news that I’m not graduating from high school because I didn’t get this done. Please, just trust me.”

It probably would have made both their lives easier.

Parents, your kids will need to manage their lives without you once they leave for college. The time to let them develop those skills is now. And that will require some trust on your part.

But students, if you want your parents’ trust, you’ll need to earn it. The most effective way to do that is through your actions. Take responsibility for things you can do yourself. Show them that you’re able and willing to drive your own college process. Learn from your occasional mistakes. Then keep demonstrating that you deserve that trust.

And don’t forget that your parents have likely spent most of your life taking care of things for you. It’s nearly impossible for them to release all that responsibility overnight. It’s a transition, one that will require you to occasionally provide status updates you may rather not provide. Provide them anyway. Give a little more information than you’re inclined to. Doing so will eventually lessen their need to check up on you. And if it doesn’t, you’ll have the demonstrated track record necessary to have a conversation about giving you a little more credit, and a little more trust.

It’s called trustworthy for a reason.

Frequently asked college search questions

Certain college-related questions pop up nearly every time I speak to a crowd of high school students and parents. Last week, my business partner, Paul, and I shared the stage at a Southern California high school, and every one of those recurring questions came up. Since they’ve proven to be top-of-mind for families going through the process, here are links to past posts that address these frequently asked college search questions.

I keep hearing that there is a lot of money out there in scholarships. How do we get those?

Here’s the truth, and here’s how to improve your chances.

How do I figure out which schools are right for me?

Start with 10 not-so-easy questions, look here for inspiration, remember to match colleges to you, and don’t forget that affordability is part of fit.

What if I don’t know what I want to major in?

Consider what you’d like to learn more about, and don’t be afraid to apply (to the right schools) as an undecided major.

Can my sport help me get into college?

There are two ways it can help, and there are two important questions to ask yourself.

We know someone [who we hope can leverage some influence]. Will that help?

Very rarely, but here’s how to tell.

Don’t let someone hijack your morning mood

According to researcher and author Michelle Gielan, checking email first thing in the morning can ruin your entire day. Psychologically, just one negative email, even if it’s offset by plenty of positive messages, can color your outlook and lead you to report having a bad day even hours later. If you’ve ever started your morning by reading a snarky comment, an angry message, or an announcement of bad news, you’ve probably experienced that emotional hangover that can linger.

Everyone, from students to parents to counselors, has to process more incoming communication than any generation before. You probably can’t get away from email negativity entirely. But why take the risk of letting just one message hijack your morning mood? We all might be better off starting our days on our own terms.


I needed to reserve a meeting room for a training I’ll be holding for Collegewisers in Seattle. So I went online and tried to use a popular workspace rental company. Before I clicked “Get a Quote,” I decided to click on the “Terms and Conditions” just to see what I was agreeing to.

Among other things, just asking how much a room costs meant that I was agreeing to:

  • receive telephone calls and text messages, even if I’m on a Do-Not-Call list
  • receive telephone calls for the purpose of marketing
  • receive e-mails
  • receive phone calls placed by an automatic telephone number dialing system
  • receive telephone communications containing pre-recorded messages
  • receive calls from contractors and third-party companies

I can’t imagine someone willingly agreeing to that arrangement, which is exactly why the company hides it, makes it the potential customer’s responsibility to unearth it, and then tricks people into agreeing to it.

Imagine how absurd this would be in our personal lives.

Thanks for asking me to go out on a date with you. If you had taken the time to learn about my terms and conditions, you’d know that you’ve now given me permission to call, text, or email you whenever I feel like it even if you start dating someone else. You’ve also agreed to let my friends, relatives, and even a computer call you on my behalf. And sometimes it won’t even be a real person calling—just a recording of something I, not you, think is important. And you’ve agreed to let me keep doing those things until you fill out a form expressly telling me to stop (at which point I’ll gladly comply in 5-7 business days).

Sound ridiculous? Maybe even a little underhanded and creepy? Yes, and that’s the point.

Spam has become so rampant that too many businesses, colleges, and organizations seem to just accept that it’s OK to engage it. But that’s the classic “Everybody’s doing it!” argument. Your customers deserve better than this. You deserve better than this. Any campaign or tactic that tricks people into doing something is only going to make it harder for them to trust you in the future.

“Transparency” is one of those business clichés that’s completely lost its oomph. But the sentiment is still a good one. Would your business, school, or organization be proud to stand up and say publicly, “Here’s what we’re doing, and here’s why we’re doing it”? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track. But if the answer is no, and even worse, if it’s something you’d feel compelled to hide, that’s a good reason to reconsider.

Five lessons from effective executives

Peter Drucker has been called the inventor of modern management. His formative book, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, was first published in 1966. While the language is noticeably dated (the book only refers to executives as men), it’s surprising how relevant the ideas presented still are today.

Here are five traits the book identifies in effective executives that I think could apply to just about any college-bound high school student.

1. They value their own time.
Effective executives understand that time is their most precious resource. And as much as possible, they want to make conscious, informed decisions about how they spend it. The forthcoming lessons discuss more about how they do this, but Drucker raises this point early on to make the case that effectiveness can be learned, and must be intentional. Effective executives don’t just show up for work and hope to have something to show for it by the end of the day.

Related to valuing their time, I also loved what Drucker had to say about meetings.

“Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time…An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.”

2. They constantly ask, “What can I contribute?”
In every situation, task, or crisis, effective executives want to make important contributions. The more they contribute, the more valuable and effective they are. To make the most of their time, they only want to do something if they can bring real value to it. And they measure that value by the quality and quantity of their contributions.

3. They focus on strengths, not weaknesses.
Effective executives want to maximize strengths—both their own and those of their coworkers. They understand that spending time trying to improve a weakness rarely yields as much benefit as putting a top strength to work on a well-matched opportunity.

They also understand that even the best executives and employees have weaknesses.

“The idea that there are ‘well-rounded’ people, people who have only strengths and no weaknesses…is a prescription for mediocrity if not for incompetence. Strong people always have strong weaknesses too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys. And no one is strong in many areas.”

4. They direct their time to areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.
Effective executives don’t just want to get things done; they want to get the right things done. They consciously choose to spend time doing things that will yield the best, most important results. And those results are a lot more important to them than just being “busy.”

5. They understand the importance of having uninterrupted, focused time.
A scattered, multi-tasking executive is not an effective executive. Important work deserves focused time without interruption. As Drucker describes it,

“To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, therefore needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks…To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours…To write a report may, for instance, require six or eight hours, at least for the first draft. It is pointless to give seven hours to the task by spending fifteen minutes twice a day for three weeks. All one has at the end is blank paper with some doodles on it.”

A high school student may not be a business titan. But you make decisions every day about what to do and how to do it. If you can be effective when you make those choices, you are also far more likely to be successful.

Can seniors afford to slack off?

I’ve gotten several requests from parent readers to pen a post about the importance of keeping senior year grades up. The last time I touched on this topic, today’s seniors were just high school freshmen. So here’s the link to that past post, Seniors: Keep up the good work, which explains how maintaining your academic performance can help you get admitted, and then stay admitted.

I recognize, too, that many high-achieving seniors have had their feet on the academic and extracurricular gas pedals for years at a pace that really would be unsustainable for most adults. Rising before 7, going to school all day, doing activities in the afternoon, and studying until past midnight—it can take a physical, mental, and emotional toll. If that sounds like a familiar pattern, please remember a few things that I hope you’ll find encouraging.

First, this type of demanding schedule is primarily a high school phenomenon. College will not be like this. Most jobs are not like this. That sentiment may not bring immediate relief. But difficult circumstances are easier to bear when you know they are temporary.

The ambition and work ethic that you’re demonstrating now are also the surest signs that you’re bound for success in life. These traits will remain in your life even when this level of daily demands does not. Please remember that, no matter which colleges say yes.

And finally, if you really are feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up, please consider speaking with your high school counselor. Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor writes in The Happiness Advantage that “verbalizing the stress and helplessness you are feeling is the first step towards regaining control” [of stress]. And more importantly, cases of anxiety and depression are increasingly common for high school kids. Whether you’re dealing with stress or something more serious, your counselor will be able to help you.

How to give better answers to frequently asked questions

Since entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers sold his company, CD Baby, in 2008 for $22M, he’s been inviting—and happily answering—questions over email about business, productivity, and life. After answering a total of 192,000 emails from 78,000 people, Sivers finally announced at the close of 2016 that he was no longer taking questions. But he left his readers and fans with this FAQ page, which I found interesting for two reasons.

1. His FAQs are about the askers, not the answerer.
Too many FAQ sections are actually just promotional material masquerading as frequently requested answers. I’ve never once had a student ask, “What year was College X founded?” Yet I’ve seen that supposed frequently asked question pop up on multiple colleges’ FAQ sections. The same can be said of “What is Y Corporation’s mission?” or “What accolades has Individual Z received?” Sivers isn’t promoting himself at all—in fact, many of the answers really just decline offers for speaking, investing, interviews, etc. Instead, he seems to have chosen the 21 questions that were in fact the most frequently asked. He may be disappointing a lot of people by not personally replying with an answer, but he’s dramatically increased the likelihood that subsequent visitors will actually find the answer they’re looking for.

2. He tries to leave people better off than when they arrived.
Yes, some of his replies are just no’s—he won’t promote your product, he won’t invest in your idea, he won’t be on your podcast (for now). But far more of his responses include recommendations for his favorite book on that topic, helpful advice, or another resource to leave the visitor better off than they would have been with, “That’s too complicated to answer over email,” or even worse, no answer at all. And while the replies aren’t lengthy, I got the sense that many of those answers might be the same that he’d offer to a close friend or family member. Sivers may not be replying personally to each inquiry. But that FAQ page will allow him to help people for a long time.

If you’re a counselor, administrator, teacher, head of an organization, or anyone else who answers many of the same questions over and over again, you likely can’t just stop answering them and let an FAQ do all the work for you. But you could create an FAQ to cut down on your repeat answer performances, and even to extend your service by not making people wait for a helpful reply that could just as easily and effectively have been handled with an FAQ.

Private counselors, what if you took the most common questions potential clients ask and posted an FAQ with honest, direct, helpful answers? “How are you different from your competition?” could include links to your competitors’ websites along with a recommendation that families interview multiple counselors and choose the one that seems to be the best fit. “What type of students do you work with?” could include information not just about your typical student, but also the types of students you don’t typically serve, along with recommendations for where those kids could find good information or support. Imagine the tone this would set for a visitor who’s just arriving at your website and is already being helped before even speaking with you.

High school counselors, what if you picked the 10-20 questions you get most often and posted the most helpful, honest answers you could write, the type you would share if the parent or student were actually a relative? How well-served would your families feel, and more importantly, how much time might you get back to get other work done?

Teachers, what questions do you answer repeatedly from students and parents? You could even turn your answers into mini articles, like, “The best ways to improve your writing,” or “The five best ways to improve your grade in my class,” or “What to do if you need extra help.” Yes, you could still reply to each inquiry and personalize both the message and the advice. But you could also let the article do the work for you when it comes down to repeating the advice that you’ve shared many times before.

Colleges, I’ve even written a past post on how to improve your own FAQ sections.

Good questions deserve good answers. But it’s almost impossible to answer a particular question with the same attention and care the hundredth time as you did the first five times. When those questions cause your energy and enthusiasm to wane, consider adding that query—and the best possible reply—to your “FAQs.” You’ll give better answers, you’ll leave people better off, and you’ll have more time to answer those personal, nuanced questions that aren’t so frequently asked.

When a (low) GPA doesn’t predict future success

32-year-old Ezra Klein is the editor-in-chief of Vox, a news organization featuring articles, videos, newsletters, and podcasts that combine to reach over 100 million people each month. He was also a columnist at The Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC, and a contributor to Bloomberg. And he was named one of the 50 most powerful people in Washington by GQ.

But as he revealed recently on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, in 2002, Klein was just a kid graduating from high school with a 2.2 GPA and no real idea what he wanted to do with his life.

Klein doesn’t necessarily credit his college with his turnaround that led to such remarkable success. But he is an example of several themes I write about often here:

  • The traditional measures of success in high school did not accurately reflect his capabilities. In fact, he talks about how liberating it was to finally find areas where his strengths could be put to use.
  • He had the curiosity and initiative to pursue what he eventually discovered interested him.
  • He made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves.
  • He bounced back from failures and, in fact, today says, “The things that I wanted and didn’t get are extreme blessings.”

This podcast discussion actually had little to do with politics and far more to do with the path of Klein’s success, where he came from, how he took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves, how he bounced back from failure, and who helped him along the way.

Ferriss does start the podcast with three minutes of self-promotion and sponsor pitching, which seems excessive to me. But if you’d like to hear from an honest, open, successful person who wasn’t at the top of his high school class but had a lot to offer and found a way to do so, the interview, which you can find here, is well worth a listen.

It’s not that high school classes and grades aren’t important. In fact, a student who blows off academics as unimportant is eliminating both options and opportunities. That’s a risky strategy, and not one that I’d recommend.

But Klein’s interview is a nice reminder that regardless of your GPA, who you are in high school is not necessarily a mold for who you’ll be or what you’ll become in the future.