Got questions?

I’ve got about six months left before I retire the Collegewise blog on its tenth anniversary (here’s the original announcement of that decision). And for the next month or two, I’d like to invite questions from readers. Every week or so, I’ll choose one to answer in the form of a post. The question form is here if you’d like to submit one for consideration. Feel free to submit anything, but questions that are too specific to one particular student aren’t likely to get selected unless there’s a broader application for other readers. I’m looking forward to reading—and answering—them.


Choose your own adventure

I don’t know what everyone I went to college with is doing today. But the internet does, at least to some degree. And I’ve noticed some interesting differences when it comes to what the internet finds based on the person I knew.

I remember people in college who were always doing something interesting, new, or challenging. People who became resident advisors. People who sought out interesting internships. People who studied abroad. People who became tutors, campus leaders, and TAs. Intramural sports referees. Members of campus bands. Peer counselors, student academic advisors, and others who worked in the various departments on campus. Even bartenders at the campus pub. They all had something going on besides just showing up and attending class.

When I google those people, almost without exception, the internet comes back with something interesting. What they’re up to may or may not be related to their college interests, but these folks are doing something impactful, something where they’re leading and creating change, something where people would notice if they stopped showing up. It’s not an exact science, and the internet can certainly distort reality. But those who were always involved in something interesting or good appear to have continued that trend post college.

And then there were those who never quite leapt all the way into the college experience. They went to class. They might have even performed well academically. But when faced with boundless opportunities to explore, to try new things, to discover and lead and make their mark in some way, they sat back. Maybe they didn’t appreciate the real opportunity. Maybe they were waiting to be told what to do. But it wasn’t because they prioritized academics so much that they had little time for anything else, as I don’t recall this group having universally higher GPAs than those who chose to fill their time outside of the classroom with other pursuits.

And when I search for members of that group online, something interesting happens. They don’t show up. Google either has no record of them (other than the most basic sites that tell you where people with that same name have lived) or they appear as role-players in a bigger story about the company or the organization where they work. It doesn’t mean they aren’t happy and successful—they get to decide what those metrics are for themselves. But it does feel like both groups carried their college personas with them into adulthood. And doing so impacted what, where, and how they made their way after college.

Here’s what I’m hoping the college-bound notice and take from this. Those college personas were based on choices, not personality types or DNA. It wasn’t as if all of those in the first group were naturally better-wired to pursue those opportunities. They made the choice to do so. Those in the other group made a different choice.

Not everyone is allotted the same level of freedom to make those choices, as those students who pay for some or all of their college also need to work. Their circumstances may not have been their choice, but doing that work inevitably put them into the group who took as much from the college experience as they were giving to it.

College isn’t a roller coaster ride where you simply sit down and wait for everything to happen. It’s a four-year choose your own adventure. And the choices you make will inevitably impact what you do, how you do it, and how you show up, at work and on the internet, once you leave.

Avoid the crowds

The secret to having a great visit at Disneyland is to go on a day when it’s not crowded. Show up when it’s packed and you’ll spend more time waiting in line than doing anything else. But arrive on a day when Mickey and friends are serving a fraction of their total capacity and you’ll get more rides per hour, more bang for your buck, and more fun per single visit. You’ll still need to make the effort and the rounds—the fun isn’t just going to come to you. But when there’s nothing stopping you from zooming through Space Mountain one more time, why not take the ride? The small crowd makes that possible.

Some of the most appealing pursuits in high school are crowded (which in many cases is exactly what makes them appealing in the first place). The club everyone seems to join. The class everyone wants to take. The college everyone else wants to attend. The crowds make it harder to avail yourself of what they have to offer. You either can’t get in at all or you manage to get in only to compete with a large crowd for all the opportunities. If you’ve identified something you really want to do, don’t avoid it just because of crowds or competition. But if an alternative could suffice, maybe it should?

Why not join a club that’s just begging for someone to lead and make an impact?

Why not learn that class’s material a different way, like through an online course, a community college, or a self-directed study?

Why not find some colleges that may not be as famous but still present the same offerings and opportunities that drew you to the crowded one? (There are plenty of them—trust me.)

The more opportunity you have to initiate, to lead, to solve problems, to make an impact, to make a difference, and to enact positive change, the more you’ll get out of whatever you’re choosing to do. And those opportunities are often a lot more readily available when you avoid the crowds.

Hunting season?

Author and researcher Marcus Buckingham has spent his career studying success in the workplace. In his recent post and accompanying video, Buckingham shares what he believes is the best career advice he has ever heard. The entire post and video are worth a look, but here’s my favorite snippet:

“When it comes to work, there is no preset route. The most successful people are always searching for new opportunities to use their strengths. They’re able to pivot paths, and if it’s not right, they scavenge back. Don’t worry about moving a little off course; in fact, a lot of successful peoples’ routes are scattered because their scavenger hunt has led them to a few different places, and they’ve course-corrected until they’ve found the best opportunities to fit their strengths.”

Worth considering for students preparing to head to college this fall. Rather than viewing college as one step in a preset route to a career, consider turning that time into a four-year hunting season in which you search for opportunities to learn, grow, and discover your talents.

The real person

I’m so lucky that just about all the feedback I get about my blog posts is at best positive and at worst constructive. But every now and then, I’ll get a reply that makes it clear my posts and this particular reader are just not a good match. I usually send a short reply expressing that I appreciate them reading, that I’m sorry the message didn’t resonate, and that my blog probably isn’t for them.

And more than once, I’ve had one of those readers respond back with something to the effect of, “I wasn’t expecting to hear from a real person!” I always smile at that sentiment. Who (or what) exactly did they think was writing these blogs? Of course it’s a real person. My name and photo are right there on the front page.

Even in the increasing age of technology, and as difficult as some companies may make it to find one, plenty of communication still involves a human being. Someone is at the other end of that email, that phone call, that outreach of any kind. And it helps to remember that this someone is, in fact, a real person.

Whether you’re a college sending out admissions decisions, a student contacting an admissions office, or a parent reaching out to a teacher (which we should encourage our kids to do on their own), don’t just fire off your request or complaint. Remember that there’s a real person on the other side. Treating them that way makes it more likely you’ll beget the same treatment in return.

Make it easier

Last week, I needed to cancel our Collegewise account with DocuSign, as we’ve recently found a new tool that replaces it. And as I logged into my account, I braced myself. I was expecting the same routine I’ve found with multiple other services.

You want to upgrade and pay us more? Great! We’ll make it easy—just click here!

But oh, you want to cancel? Ooff. Geez. We can’t let you just click a button. You’ll have to call us. And once you’re here, we’ll send you through a recorded option purgatory before you finally reach a real human being who will inevitably make you defend your choice to leave us. In the meantime, please hold. Your call is very important to us.

But DocuSign made it easier. One click was all it took. It was so damn refreshing, it actually made me even more likely to recommend their product.

There are a few lessons here for schools, counselors, and students.

Schools and counselors, if you’re serving students (and in many cases, their parents), are you making it easier for them to get the information they need, to take the actions they need to take, to do the things they need to do to benefit most from what you offer? I’m not suggesting you need to be available to them 24/7, but here’s a good litmus test. Imagine someone you love—your child, your partner, your grandmother—experiencing what these customers are experiencing. Would you feel good about how they’re being treated? Or would you think they deserved better? If it’s the latter, remember that your customers are somebody’s child, partner, grandmother, etc. And they probably deserve better.

And for students who are sifting through various college acceptances, here’s an ask—when you make your final decision, please honor the other colleges’ requests to tell them that you won’t be attending. Regardless of your level of affection for those colleges, remember that other students just like you plan on—or desperately hope to be—attending. Those students are customers whose lives will be made better if the colleges can make it easier. The sooner students like you inform schools of your plans to go elsewhere, the sooner those colleges can commit to housing their incoming students, and the sooner they can reach out to those applicants on waitlists to offer them a space. You’ll be helping colleges and your fellow students, and you’ll be putting yourself in line for well-deserved karma points for making everyone’s job just a little easier.

Stuck on a past story?

College admissions decision month presents a separate but related choice many seniors will need to make, especially those who were disappointed with the outcomes: Live with the past story or write a new one.

You’d envisioned yourself attending Duke, Pomona or another college you thought was perfect for as long as you can remember. You worked hard. You put forth the effort in classes and activities and your application. And still, the answer you received was not what you’d hoped for.

You now have a choice. Stay stuck in a past story, the one that saw you thriving at your dream college. Relive that disappointment every day, rehashing the disconnect between the college future you envisioned and the one that’s presented itself.

Or you could embrace a new story. You could find pride and reassurance in the work you’ve done. You could envision all the new learning and friends and adventures that will be waiting for you at a college that said yes. You could invest your focus and energy into planning to extract the maximum value from the experience that’s awaiting. You could write a new story based on the reality that’s been presented.

I’m not suggesting that you aren’t allowed to feel disappointment. You’re a human being, not a robot, after all. But at some point, experiencing that disappointment edges into unnecessarily reliving disappointment that would otherwise dissipate. Once that happens, your narrative is leaving you stuck in the past, and it’s time for a new story.

This won’t be the last time life throws something at you that’s different from what you envisioned. It’s part of growing up, something we all contend with at different times. Consider this a practice run, albeit a painful one, for those future events. And remember that you’ll almost always feel better, and plot a more productive path forward, when you act based on the real present instead of staying stuck on a past story.

Face-to-face, or screen-to-screen?

An increasing number of families who work with a college counselor at Collegewise do so entirely online via Zoom or Skype. In fact, we now have a growing crew of counselors who are not housed in an office and instead work with families virtually. We’re very comfortable counseling online. We know it works. The experience and outcomes are just as successful and enjoyable for both parties as they are for those who work with us in person. Still, many families understandably have some reluctance around engaging with someone who may be in a different city or even an entirely different time zone. What’s the best way to allay their anxieties?

We decided to express ourselves exactly as we advise our students to on their applications—be yourself, tell the truth, and sound like a human, not a sales pitch.

Here’s the latest work from our filmmaker, Frank Martinez, featuring a few of our online counselors. No scripted messaging. No fake personas. Just real counselors, expressing their real approaches and experiences, presented in an honest but appropriately clear, succinct, effective way.

Virtual counseling still isn’t for everybody. Each family who decides to engage with Collegewise should make their own choice about how to do so. But we think this video gives families a good sense of just how similar their experience will be, whether they choose to work with us face-to-face or screen-to-screen.

You can learn more about all of our Collegewise counselors here.

It’s their show

I was listening to a sports radio talk show this week where the host, distracted by a reference to the recent college admissions bribery scandal, spent fifteen of his show’s minutes railing against three specific universities that had recently waitlisted his daughter. How, he wondered, with her grades, test scores, and accomplishments (all of which he shared during his diatribe), could they have possibly waitlisted her? He also shared the outcome of a reported discussion her counselor had with one of the schools.

I understand how hard it is for a parent to see their child disappointed. But I felt just terrible for his daughter.

Not all teens are as reluctant to share the inner workings of their lives as the stereotype may paint them to be. But I’ve never met one who would want their college admissions disappointments used as radio content shared with thousands of listeners.

I wish her father had stopped to remember that as frustrated as he may be on her behalf, all of these admissions outcomes are happening to her, not to him. It’s her disappointment, not his. And it should have been her news to share, not his.

Parents, please remember that, as close as you may be to your kids, when you (over)react to their admissions outcomes, when you openly discuss your feelings about the results with those outside of your immediate family circle (and an argument could be made that even the family circle should find out from the students themselves), you’re taking away their agency in the process and making it about you.

It’s their show, after all.

Drawn lines

With the exception of a few doctors and engineers, I don’t believe I’ve ever met a successful adult in a career they identified when they were 17 (I’ve also met some doctors and engineers who didn’t find that calling until they got to college). Most of us don’t follow a straight, predictable line from our teenage years to successful, fulfilling lives as adults. So why is there so much pressure on kids to find their future any differently?

When we pressure kids to identify their future career so they can pick the appropriate major and select the college with the reported strongest offering in that major, we’re forcing a plan on them that both anecdotal evidence and statistics show is very likely to change, maybe even dramatically.

Some of this is a well-intentioned response to a tidal shift where new college grads can no longer walk into the workforce and expect to have jobs and opportunity thrown at them. That’s an outcome of creating the most open, accessible system of higher education in the world; just graduating from college isn’t as special as it used to be. Stumbling through your college years without any sense of what you hope or expect to gain from the experience is not likely to lead to a good return on your investment of time and tuition.

But using college as a springboard to a career you identified before you moved into a dorm is just one way to instill that focus. Another option is to use your time in college to build a remarkable college career, to lean into the boundless opportunities to learn skills you can’t demonstrate on a multiple-choice test or reflect on a transcript. Those are the talents, experiences, and insights that are likely to have broad application no matter where you choose to spend your work days after college.

Some high school students have already found their future calling, but many more have not. For the latter group, let’s move away from asking them what career they want ten years from now. Instead, ask them what they want from their college experience just a few years from now. Do they hope to take steps in a straight line towards a career they’ve already identified? Or do they hope to discover their talents, explore, and find the next trajectory of their curvy line? And most importantly, what will they need to do in college to fulfill those goals, and what type of college environment is the right place for them to pursue them?

Even if you can’t predict the direction of your line, you can engage with the direction as it’s drawn.

For more on this, here’s Adam Grant’s recent New York Times piece.