Answer the question

My wife has learned the hard way that I am not a good viewing partner during televised presidential debates. Ten minutes is all I need to launch into the diatribe she knows is coming, all leading to the inevitable outcome when I get too frustrated to continue. This isn’t aimed at one particular side of the aisle—politically, I’m an equal opportunity critic around this one pet peeve.

Just answer the question.

Somewhere in the history of political debate prep, consultants decided that their candidates needed talking points paired with seemingly related anecdotes that must be wedged into the conversation at all costs. Yes, the degree and the frequency varies from candidate to candidate. It might even vary from party to party depending on the issue. But I can’t remember a presidential debate in my adult lifetime when I didn’t wish aloud at least once, “Why don’t they just answer the damn question?!”

Ignoring the question for the sake of injecting your preferred answer is akin to saying: “What I want to talk about is more important than what you want to know.” And for some questions, that leaves viewers very well informed about what a candidate wanted to say, but unable to decipher what a candidate would actually do.

Students often make the same mistake in their college applications.

Some students decide preemptively what their own talking points will be in their application. That’s not a bad strategy. It’s your application, after all. If it’s important to you, the college will almost certainly want to know about it.

But you have to find the right opportunity to share it. And it doesn’t help your admission campaign to ignore the question being asked.

An essay prompt that asks you to describe a time you failed or made a mistake, and to explain what you learned from it, is not an invitation to tell your admissions readers about an impressive accomplishment. Example: “I didn’t prepare as well as I should have for my audition, so imagine my surprise when I was selected to be the lead in the school play!” Failure is a part of life, particularly for successful people who put themselves in failure’s path. A thinly veiled effort to wedge in an accomplishment might tell them what you wanted to share, but it doesn’t tell them what they really wanted to know. That’s the disconnect that occurs when you don’t answer the question.

Colleges spend a considerable amount of time crafting, debating, and refining their applications. Every question has a purpose. Thoughtfully consider, revise, and polish your answer? Yes. But clear and compelling responses always start by answering the question.

The learning opportunity

I always appreciate when a press entity or industry publication features an article with a collection of advice from admissions officers or even the directors of those offices. I’ve written many times before about the importance of seeking and taking college admissions advice from the right sources. And admissions officers share the top of that desirability list with a student’s high school counselor.

But editing and space considerations can render some of that advice open to misinterpretation. Tidbits like “Clearly express your interest in the college” is fundamentally good advice that’s often flawed in practice. For example, some families will take that to mean they should spend an exorbitant amount of money to visit all of their colleges, but no admissions officer I’ve ever met would recommend a family end up in college-related travel debt at all, much less before the student has even applied.

Not surprisingly for regularly readers, Brennen Barnard’s latest Forbes piece, “Admission Deans Share Tips For College Applications,” reads like an article that was curated by an expert of Barnard’s caliber. It’s full of clear, sound, and easy-to-follow guidance that happens to be arriving at the perfect time.

But readers still need to use the advice responsibly, as some applicants will allow confirmation bias to get in the way of the intended advice. For example, if a family is determined to send unsolicited extra letters of recommendation or press clippings or copies of awards, they can find a way to substantiate that inclination with the article’s advice to “Go the extra mile.” And inclinations like that will work against you in this process.

Please read the examples that accompany advice like that. Don’t ignore the fact that an equally knowledgeable admissions officer in the article also offers the advice, “Don’t be redundant,” which is exactly what unsolicited materials often lead you to be. When you take in the reasoning and the examples of how and why to employ the advice, it’s very clear what’s being recommended and what’s being discouraged. But you’ll need to read closely and openly enough to take in the advice as they intend it to be taken, not as you wish it could be interpreted.

If you appreciate Barnard’s articles as much as I do, you might be interested in his forthcoming book, authored with former Georgia Tech Director of Admissions Rick Clark, The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, scheduled to be released September 19, 2019.

It can be difficult to slog through the clutter of admissions advice, especially when dished out unsolicited from sources who lack the expertise. But when it arrives from experts who have no agenda other than to help families make sound, reasonable college planning decisions, take them up on the learning opportunity.

A little love goes a long way

Author, researcher, and speaker Marcus Buckingham has spent his career studying what it takes to feel happy, successful, and engaged at work. And in this podcast interview, he shared a study and a resulting interpretation that I found fascinating.

The less time you spend doing things you love, the more at risk you are of burning out on whatever you’re doing. One study by the Mayo Clinic showed that when doctors spent less than 20% of their time doing things they loved, each percentage point below 20% carried a commensurate percentage point increase in burnout risk.

But data has also shown that spending more than 20% of your time in activities you love doesn’t decrease the burnout risk. 20% is all you need.

Buckingham then extrapolates his argument that work-life balance is a myth. There is no work and life separation, where the good of life must balance the bad of work. There is just life, and work is part of it, as is family, community, etc. Some of it we lean into, others we’re repelled by. Don’t strive for balance. Strive for imbalance. Spend more time leaning into those things that invigorate you, whatever they are. You won’t just increase your resiliency to those things that drain you—you’ll also lead a happier, more fulfilling life.

We’ll never love everything we do. And that’s OK. A little love goes a long way.


Entitlement causes a lot of frustration in college admissions.

Nobody forces a family to treat a “No” from a dream college like a personal rejection, one that’s robbing them of their right to attend Top-Choice U. This is especially true when you have offers of admission in hand from other colleges. That decision to be angry about what you don’t have rather than grateful for what you do have is a choice. And the price is that you stay stuck in your frustration and delay what is almost certainly the inevitable change of heart once you find your place at a school that had the good sense to say yes.

Students, you deserve the opportunity to attend college. You deserve to be supported in your journey to get there. You deserve to be evaluated fairly and thoughtfully and to be treated with respect no matter what the decision may be.

But it’s hard to argue that a decision from one school is a miscarriage of justice that robbed a student of an outcome they deserved.

If you want to move forward, leave the entitlement behind.

What happens next?

Imagine a friend told you:

“Six months ago, I started training for a triathlon, I launched my own business, and I enrolled in a class to help me overcome my fear of public speaking.”

You’d probably express your interest or even excitement on their behalf. But your natural response would also almost certainly involve the question, “What happened next?”

What happened next is important context for the story. Without it, you have no idea how much gravity these decisions carried with them. If your friend abandoned those commitments almost immediately and has since moved on to other interests, there’s not much left to say about what they started. Starting was all they did. Nothing happened next.

Some applicants try to beef up their college applications with too many starts. They’ll found a club or start an internet store or make other new commitments, all so they can include the story of starting when they submit their applications.

Starting is important. It’s initiative at its best. And there’s nothing wrong with starting and then stopping something, even if you stop quickly. You can’t go through life carrying every commitment you’ve ever made along with you.

But if your decision to start something is driven largely by your desire to cite that commitment on your college application, you should expect that just about any reader will naturally want to know what happened next. And without that context, it’s hard to give your start much attention in the evaluation. Starting is only the introduction to the story. And nobody raves about a book just because the introduction was so impressive.

You’ve got limited time in your life and limited space on your college application. Starting deserves its share of that time and space, but remember that the real impact almost always comes from what happens next.

The answers we don’t like

Every parent has experienced some version of the transformation that takes place when your child decides they don’t like your answer to one of their questions. They ask for the ice cream or the video or the new toy, and when the “no” comes back from the parent, the response can range from a toddler-like tantrum to lawyer-like negotiation. All in hopes of getting a different answer.

College counselors often face the same behavior from both students and parents.

A counselor delivers an honest answer or a truth that’s difficult to hear. Stanford is not a realistic choice. The letter of recommendation from an alum will not significantly improve your chances at Penn. Your essay about your work with National Charity League won’t mitigate the Cs on your transcript. Whatever it is, if it’s hard to hear, some students and parents will look for a way to get a different answer.

“What if I made a personal connection with a rep at a college fair?”

“Our neighbor told us something very different.”

“We have a friend who went to Yale, and she agrees with our choice of essay topic.”

But much like the most resolute parents facing an equally resolute child, a college counselor is unlikely to give you a different answer. It’s not because we’re stubborn or that we care most about being right. It’s because in most cases, the new information or debate or rephrasing just doesn’t change the factual answer.

I can certainly understand the inclination to do more than just acquiesce in the face of unpalatable information. And you should never hesitate to ask follow-up questions to better understand what your counselor is sharing or recommending.

But the continuous search for a different answer is usually not productive. It doesn’t help you move forward or make better decisions. It raises stress instead of lowering it. It makes kids feel less in control of the process, not more so. And it usually amounts to effort and focus that could have been more productively spent elsewhere.

People of all ages are sometimes better off accepting the answer we might not like, and then deciding how to move forward productively from there.

More than just words

Our hiring process at Collegewise is a good reminder of what it must be like for admissions officers at many colleges to read applications.

We receive hundreds of applications for open positions at Collegewise. And every one of them is read by a human. But for an applicant to progress to the next round of evaluation, they have to give that human a reason to turn around and make that recommendation. One of the least effective offerings is banal language that reads like that of every other applicant.

Here’s an example, a version of which arrives several times a day in our Talent Team’s inboxes.

“I’m a hard-working, results-driven, team-oriented person with a drive to get things done.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But what does it tell us, really?  That they are not a lazy, directionless, cantankerous person lacking the gumption to succeed? That’s not a powerful argument for a reader to make on an applicant’s behalf.

What if those job-seekers moved to more descriptive, specific examples to show us how they embody those traits?

I make at least 50 cold calls a day, but I don’t feel like I’ve done my job until at least a few of them transform into happy customers. I’ve been asked to join almost every team at work, including our party planning committee, our website overhaul team, and our group assigned to revamp our employee training. I’m willing to swear off the occasional weekend to work on a project that I really care about (my last involved researching accounting software for our company). For me to reflect on any day as a “good day,” I need to have something productive to show for it. I’ve learned to channel these instincts well, and I’m excited about the opportunity to get things done in this role for you.

See the difference? Now, my curiosity is piqued. I want to hear more about the calls, the teams, and the projects. I’m not necessarily ready to say “yes” yet, but I’ve got a lot more reasons to do so than I did in the example that preceded this.

Not everything a student has done will be an experience unique to them. But the details behind your experiences are what change you from a same-as-so-many-others applicant on paper to a real person a reader can better understand. So use your application, essay, and interview as an opportunity to show (with details) why you’re more than just words.


From the University of Virginia’s Twitter feed (for reference, the maximum score on these tests is 800):


The obsession with standardized test scores, the unnecessary parental pushing, the phone call coming from the parent rather than the student—it encapsulates the reality that much of the anxiety and pressure families find in this process is self-induced.

The right formula?

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report on the impact of organized sports on children, preadolescents, and adolescents. The study found that what makes sports enjoyable for kids is not the winning, but rather, “trying hard, making progress, being a good sport, and experiencing positive coaching.” The report is here, and a summary in the New York Times is here.

It might be tempting for some (competitive) readers to dismiss the findings as indicative of a failure to prepare our kids for the harsh realities of the world. But one of those realities is that you can’t always win—at sports, at work, in college admissions, etc. Not even the most successful adults have life-long wining streaks, especially if they’ve taken on real challenges and frequently put themselves in failure’s path. Wouldn’t our kids be more prepared, not less, if they could find joy in working hard, getting better, treating people well, and welcoming help from people who genuinely want them to succeed?

Sounds like the formula to me.

Greatness isn’t reserved

Jay Matthews, venerable and semi-retired education writer at the Washington Post, still resurfaces occasionally and adds his wise thoughts to calm college admissions mania, this time to remind us all about a young filmmaker who was denied from both USC and UCLA’s film schools, enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, and went on to become one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

That student was Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg is a story-worthy illustration that you don’t need to attend a famous college to be successful. But the circumstances surrounding his career path also make him a potentially less effective example. Few professions are as competitive as the film industry. They aren’t just handing out directing jobs to anyone with a degree. And yet Spielberg’s films have won 34 Academy Awards and grossed over 10 billion dollars, making him the highest earning filmmaker of all time.

How many filmmakers have achieved that level of success, regardless of where they went to college? Spielberg’s career is in many ways a well-deserved aberration. That’s why it might be easy for a reader to dismiss the example with, “Well, he’s Steven Spielberg. Of course it didn’t matter where he went to college.”

But the overarching point is not at all an aberration. Most successful people did not attend highly selective colleges. There are professions and people and societal challenges waiting for people to show up and play successful roles. Highly selective colleges can’t possibly produce enough graduates to fill all of them.

So whether or not you become as iconic in your profession as Steven Spielberg did in his, your path to get there will be rich with opportunities to learn, grow, discover your talents, and even have some fun along the way. All you have to do is attend a college where you will avail yourself of them.

Spielberg is story worthy. But the proof is there within just about every profession: greatness isn’t reserved for graduates of colleges that turn away most of their applicants.