Send it today, answer for it tomorrow?

In this interview with Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant, Mark Cuban, entrepreneur, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and Shark, demonstrated how to pitch a product. But what stuck with me (which I suppose makes it a good pitch) was this:

“Whatever text you send tonight or any day, whatever email you send tonight or any day, the minute you hit ‘Send,’ you no longer own that message. But you are still completely responsible for it for the rest of your life. How scary is that?”

I’ve never used the app that he’s pitching and this post isn’t an endorsement—it’s a reminder. That email, that text, that photo, etc.? You may feel perfectly comfortable sending it today. But remember that you might also have to answer for it tomorrow. So send—or don’t send—accordingly.

One per day

It’s difficult to dramatically improve your college admissibility in one day. But there are roughly 180 days of school in an academic year. What if you committed to doing one simple but effective thing each one of those days? By the end of the year, you’ll have a lot to show for your daily small efforts.

Here are a few suggestions.

  • Send a personal thank you email to your counselor, teacher, tutor, friend, parent, or anyone else who helped you when you needed it.
  • Commit to turning off (and tuning out) all distractions for at least one hour of focused studying or homework.
  • Teach someone how to do something.
  • Be nice to a fellow student people usually aren’t so nice to.
  • Congratulate, encourage, or otherwise acknowledge someone at your school who deserves it.
  • Help a local charity or non-profit.
  • Take responsibility for something that will impact one of your activities.
  • Learn about a college that you aren’t currently familiar with.
  • Go the extra mile in one class even if no extra credit policy exists.
  • Cut out all the time wasting during the day and reallocate it to an extra hour or two of sleep that night.
  • Abstain from the gossip and other high school drama that makes life harder than it needs to be.
  • Take 30 minutes and write down as many ideas as you can about how to do more of what you really enjoy and are good at.
  • Write a blog post about a topic that you care about.

Don’t try to do them all on one day. One per day is all it takes to make a difference.

Phone risk and regret

PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Brian Cullinan is having a rough week. One of two accountants entrusted with overseeing the ballot process at the Oscars, he’s been identified as the man responsible for handing the wrong envelope to the best picture presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, which led to the now infamous Oscar debacle for the ages.

As if the mistake itself wasn’t bad enough, Cullinan’s Twitter account revealed that he was tweeting photos of the event just moments before the grand gaffe. As described in this Washington Post article:

“He [Cullinan] acknowledged both the simplicity and paramount importance of his role during the show itself: ‘It doesn’t sound very complicated,’ Cullinan said, ‘but you have to make sure you’re giving the presenter the right envelope.’ But that obviously didn’t happen, and some swiftly suggested that Cullinan’s attention wasn’t solely focused on the task at hand: Just moments before he handed the wrong envelope to Beatty, Cullinan tweeted a photo of best actress winner Emma Stone clutching her statuette backstage. The tweet has since been deleted, and PricewaterhouseCoopers has not commented on Cullinan’s social media use.”

We’ve all experienced the regret that can come when you don’t have (or won’t allow yourself to have) immediate access to your phone. You might miss a great photo opportunity. You might miss a text. You might even miss a call you really needed to take. It’s understandable why so many of us, not just teenagers, can be reluctant to redirect our attention from the phone in our hand to the world in our view. Nobody likes missing out.

But the regret of “I wish I hadn’t been so focused on my phone” can be so much worse. If you’re doing work that matters to you, if you’re having an important conversation, if you’re reading or studying or especially if you’re driving, the effect of diverting your attention can harm your work, your relationships, and in the most severe cases, your life.

How much do you think Brian Cullinan regrets using his phone in that vital moment? How much better would his life be this week if he had just focused on the important, live-televised task at hand? Was that tweet worth the lifetime association his name will carry with the biggest mistake in Oscar history (Google will never forget even when the rest of us have long since moved on)?

The next time you divert your attention away from something important to focus on your phone, stop and ask yourself if it’s worth the risk. And more importantly, can you live with the regret if things go wrong?

First steps

You might already have some vision for what you want to learn, do, or experience during or after college:

  • Become an engineer
  • Be a doctor
  • Dive into classic literature
  • Become a titan of technology or another industry
  • Create positive change in politics
  • Help those who need it the most
  • Teach kids
  • Express yourself with your art or music or dance
  • Discover your underlying talents and passions
  • Learn more about Eastern European history or math or philosophy

Whatever your vision is, consider what steps you can take now to start down that path.

There are plenty of books, YouTube videos, cheap in-person or online classes, internships, volunteer opportunities, apprenticeships, and other ways to get a taste of whatever interests you. And while I don’t think teenagers should be in a hurry to grow up (you’re only a teenager once, after all), initiative and curiosity are an appealing pair to colleges. Admissions officers know that the student who has not only the desire to learn and experience new things, but also the initiative to seek out and find opportunities to scratch those itches, is more likely to be successful in college.

You don’t have to become an engineer, perform surgery, or take your first company public to impress colleges (if you knew everything you need to know to achieve all your dreams, what would you need college for?). But the sooner you take your first steps, the closer you’ll be to your goal. And the sooner you’ll realize whether or not you’re stepping in the right direction.

Nobody ever fell in “like” with a resume

Every Friday, I send out a lighthearted question to all of our Collegewise colleagues. Dubbed Friday Fun, answering these questions is completely optional, and our responses are shared with everyone in the company. Our offices are spread out all over the country (and one office internationally), so we don’t all get to interact face-to-face very often. But along with all the banter that inevitably ensues, questions like What was your first job? What’s your favorite family tradition? and Do you have any hobbies? help us get to know each other better and bond over things that have absolutely nothing to do with getting into college.

Last week’s question–What’s your guilty pleasure?–reminded me just how likeable and self-effacing our Collegewisers are. Here are a few of the responses.

I definitely like Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez songs more than a man my age probably should.

If it takes place in space and there are laser beams or photon torpedoes, you can count me in. I love sci-fi tv and movies. #noshame #trekkies4life

Chocolate. Any kind. But not with fruit; that’s just wrong.

It’s not unheard of for me to go through a two-pound block of cheddar in less than a week.

I’ll admit it. Watching The Bachelor, group texting about it, and eating directly from a bag of Costco-sized potato chips, all at the same time. I’m not ashamed.

We hire people at Collegewise with long track records of over-achieving. They’ve accomplished great things in school and at work. But that’s not what makes them so likeable. Their personalities, their confidence to be themselves, and their willingness to admit things like their guilty pleasures are what make people want to be around them. They’re not embarrassed. They’re not trying too hard. They are who they are, and they know that’s enough.

Future college applicants, take a page out of our counselors’ books.

Colleges need to know that you’re prepared to handle the rigors of college and that you’ll contribute both in the classroom and on the campus. So they’ll pay close attention to your transcript, test scores, activities, and letters of recommendation. Those are the parts of the application that tell colleges whether or not you’re qualified for admission.

But colleges are also asking themselves who you are and what it would be like for other students to live and learn with you for four years. That’s what the essay and the interview are for—to get a better sense of your personality and what makes you tick. To get into college, you need to be likeable. And the best way to be likeable is to just be yourself.

High school students feel a lot of pressure these days to outwork, out-achieve, and out-accomplish the competition. Those aren’t necessarily bad instincts as long as they don’t hurt your health or happiness. Hard work is the key to succeeding.

But you are not just a collection of grades, test scores, and accomplishments. You’re a real person, with your own story, personality, likes, dislikes, foibles, and yes, even guilty pleasures. Those are what make you who you are, the parts that are uniquely yours that no other applicant gets to claim. So embrace them. Be proud of them. And use them, when and where appropriate, to help colleges get to know the real you.

I’m not suggesting that your entire college application should focus on your love of science fiction, cheese, or reality television. But while you want colleges to be impressed with you, you also want them to like you. And nobody ever fell in like with a resume.

How much do AP classes help admissions chances?

The good folks at Challenge Success recently released their white paper, The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up To Its Promise? It attempts to answer questions like, “Does taking AP courses inherently boost a student’s chances of college admissions?” (Spoiler alert: it depends on the college.)

For families who would rather not read and weed through all of the data, page 10’s “Suggestions for Students” has some good advice that might help you decide if AP courses are right for you, and if so, how many—and which particular courses—to take. And I appreciated their sensible, student-friendly advice like,

“Don’t take AP courses just to get into college. While many elite colleges will expect applicants to have enrolled in rigorous and challenging courses, particularly in subject areas of interest to the student, AP enrollment alone will not guarantee your college admission. Moreover, taking AP courses and doing poorly because you are taking them for the wrong reasons or are not interested in the subject or are in over your head or are spread too thin will not reflect well upon you, nor will taking AP courses that cause undue stress, limit your ability to participate in other meaningful activities, or impact your ability to get enough sleep each night. It’s best to enroll in AP courses only in areas that are of real interest to you and in which you are prepared and able to work hard.”

Start with an audience of one

That email you’re writing…
That website you’re building…
That flyer you’re creating…
That brochure copy you’re penning…
That t-shirt you’re designing…

Who’s it for?

It’s a good question to ask, and a good person to envision, as you’re making it.

When I sit down to write a blog post, I try to envision exactly who it’s for. Not “parents,” or “students,” or “counselors”—that’s too broad. I want to imagine the one person out there who’s most likely to read and share it.

The parent of a nice B student who’d like some reassurance that there are plenty of great colleges out there for her child, too.

The over-achieving student who needs a reminder that the work will pay off no matter which colleges say yes.

The high school counselor who wants to alert her large caseload of families about upcoming changes in the financial aid process.

Of course, each of those posts will probably appeal to more than one person. But they won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s OK. If it’s good enough, the person each post is written for will share it with people in their tribe who think and act similarly.

It’s impossible to make something that everyone will like. But pleasing one specific person is an attainable goal.

And if your answer to “Who’s it for?” is, “This isn’t for anyone—it’s just for me,” then you’ve got a willing audience of one—yourself! So go make yourself happy with your art, writing, music, reading, learning, etc. and let all the other potential audiences go.

The path to the most receptive audience starts with an audience of one.

Find the “Yes” in assignments

My neighbors—both full-time working parents—have a daughter in kindergarten. While visiting their house this week, I watched as their five-year-old sat patiently at the dinner table while her mother painstakingly crafted a stack of valentines.

Apparently, the kindergarten class’s forthcoming Valentine’s Day celebration came with the following requirements. Not only did the students need to bring individual Valentine’s Day cards for every student in the class, but the cards were also mandated to be:

Inscribed with personal messages complimenting each individual student.

And the school had just announced those requirements the week of the celebration.

I’m not an expert in kindergarten-level skills, but what five-year-old could actually create and produce customized cards for 25 students without significant parent involvement? As her mother calmly but frustratingly put it:

“This is pretty much a homework assignment for the parents.”

I understand the thinking behind the assignment. No student should feel left out on Valentine’s Day if the class is going to celebrate. It’s a nice sentiment for each student to express something positive about each of their classmates. And there’s nothing wrong with projects that kindergarten kids and their parents can work on together. That comes with the parenting job.

But this five-year-old, who apparently loves Valentine’s Day by the way, was bored and ready to move on no matter how much her mother created and encouraged opportunities to participate in the project. It had been several hours already and the project had long lost its appeal.

I write often here about the need for parents of high school kids to step back, to give your kids the space to do for themselves those things they’re capable of doing without your help. Those parents who continuously hover, manage, and otherwise run their kids’ lives aren’t preparing them for the independence of college.

But this Valentine’s Day card mandate reminded me that even well-intentioned parents might be trained early in their kids’ schooling to get involved because that seems to be what’s expected. If the assignments for your five-year-old require you to manage or even to complete them, how is a parent supposed to recognize when that involvement is no longer necessary when the assignments only get more advanced and more time-consuming as kids progress through school?

And even more troubling, why wouldn’t kids continue to expect or even depend on their parents’ help if the standard is set so early?

My best advice for parents: With each project, ask yourself if this is something your student can do. Then adapt your role to accommodate the “Yes.” Give them as much room or opportunity as you can to do the parts they’re able to complete, even if it means the end result won’t be perfect.

My advice for teachers and schools is largely the same. With each assignment, ask yourself, “Is this something a student can do?” If your answer is “Yes,” including one that will challenge kids to reach a little higher than they might think they can, give them a chance to learn, grow, and surprise themselves.

But if the answer is “No,” if your instincts and experience tell you that the assignment will rely more on parents than it does students, change the assignment until you find the “Yes.”

Reach the carrots by ignoring them

Author Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which is also nicely summarized in his 20-minute TED Talk, argues that the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t lead to long-term motivation. Telling someone, “If you do this, you’ll get this” works for simple, rote tasks. But for 21st century jobs requiring creative thinking and innovation, the extrinsic motivators like money and authority are actually less effective than three intrinsic motivators:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: The desire to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Too many families approach the high school years using the carrot-and-stick approach to college prep.

If you do this: take hard classes, get good grades, study for the SAT, do community service, take leadership positions, etc.

You’ll get this: admission to a prestigious college.

Given the science that supports Pink’s argument, it’s no surprise that this approach fails far too often in one of two ways: (1) Kids do what they were told to do but still don’t get into their dream college, or (2) kids just can’t find the motivation and won’t engage in their college prep.

What if families took a different approach and focused their college prep on autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

Find the subjects and activities that appeal most to you. Work hard to engage and excel where your strengths naturally fit. And do all those things not just because they’ll help you get into college, but because they’ll also make you smarter, happier, more fulfilled, and ultimately more successful in whatever you decide to pursue.

Pink isn’t arguing that the path to motivation is to do only what you want to do whenever you want to do it. We all have responsibilities at school, at work, and/or at home that deserve our attention. And there’s nothing wrong with having aspirations and working hard to achieve them.

But motivation isn’t an unlimited resource. It needs to be refueled occasionally. And the promise of just-do-this-and-you’ll-get-this won’t refill the tank. There are plenty of things worth learning and worth doing. Students might do well to follow their internal motivators, the ones that draw them towards their natural interests and talents. Listen to those intuitions, put the work in to master them, and connect them to a greater purpose of becoming a better human being.

Do that over and over again, and you’ll be a lot more likely to reach those carrots, too.

Prove the yes’s right

We’re hiring for a number of positions at Collegewise right now, all of which have generated dozens (and dozens) of applications of interest. Some are easy no’s, especially for those people who don’t read our post all the way through, don’t follow directions, and don’t seem to care enough to do more than send the same recycled cover letter and resume. But many more come from highly qualified, interesting, compelling people who could almost certainly make great contributions here. They took the time to get to know us. They cared enough to put together personal materials to show us how and why they’d be a good fit here. They gave thoughtful, honest answers to our interview questions, and asked equally good questions in return.

If we had 5, 10, or 20 positions open, I’d hire many of them. But given the comparatively small number of available positions, in the end, we have to say no to most qualified people who apply. It’s one of the few parts of my job I don’t like.

We’re very good at hiring at Collegewise. We’ve built a process that, from the first read of our “help wanted” ad, all the way to the formal job offer, tends to attract the best fits and repel those who just wouldn’t like working here. We’ve learned how to evaluate materials, how to ask questions that reveal someone’s talents, motivations, and personalities, and how to go with our guts to pick people who will do great things here and make everyone proud to work with them. We’re almost always right about who we pick.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t wrong about the people we don’t pick.

A decision to hire one person is also many decisions not to hire other people. The answer to whether or not we made a good “yes” choice reveals itself. Working with them, watching them in action, seeing them fulfill all the potential we saw in them—it’s a confirmation that we made a good choice.

But we don’t get to confirm those choices we made about people we didn’t hire. We know they’re going to go on to do great things someplace else. But we’ll never know just how great they could have been here.

People are complex. That’s why selecting them—for jobs, for dating, and yes, for college admissions, is not an exact, infallible science. You can look for the right things. You can evaluate thoroughly and thoughtfully. You can give yourself the best chance of making a “yes” choice you’ll be happy about. But even the best systems don’t guarantee you’ll be right about who you pick, or who you don’t pick.

Most admissions offices do a very good job of evaluating their applicants. They’re as thorough as time and opportunity allows them to be. They try to be reasonable and fair with every application. They genuinely want to admit not just the students who are qualified, but also those who are most likely to be happy and to thrive in that college’s particular environment. And they’re usually proven right about who they pick.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right about who they don’t pick. Selective colleges can’t take everyone who applies. Many yes’s will be right, and many no’s will be wrong. The only difference is that the colleges each get to see how their yes’s play out. The no’s will play out somewhere else, likely at another college that had the good fortune and good sense to say yes.

For seniors who are receiving decisions from your colleges, remember that a no doesn’t necessarily mean they made the right choice with you (or the wrong choice with one of their yes’s). It just means that they made a series of difficult choices they had to make.

It might not always seem fair. It might not always seem to make sense. But remember that one college’s decision to say no is also your opportunity to prove one of your yes’s right.