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Lessons learned from the recession

Like a lot of businesses, we're finally starting to feel like we've successfully survived the recession.  Our business is growing and we feel good about our future.  But there's an opportunity now for us to take a hard look at what we got both right and wrong during the tough times of the last 2 1/2 years.

First, what we did right.

1.  In January of 2009, I created a financial aid and scholarships seminar for our Collegewise families.  I'd always been intimidated by that subject and saw it as outside of our core strengths.  But I took the time to learn it and put something together that does what we try to do for everything college admissions-related–take something complicated and make it easier to understand.  Today, that seminar is one of the most popular seminars that we offer, and we get great feedback about it from our families.

Lesson learned:  Always look for ways to make your current customers happier.  Never stop thinking about what they need and how you could give (not sell, but give) them more than you promised them.

2.  The bottom fell out of the economy right after our class of 2009 applied to college.  We immediately started offering a series of "State of The Nation" group meetings for our senior families.  The idea was that the better they understood how the economy would affect the admissions process, the more comfortable they would feel that the strategy we'd used together would still leave their kids with plenty of college options.  Today, we continue to do these meetings as "Back to School Nights" for senior families. 

Lesson learned:  Find ways to show your customers that you understand what they're going through.  Show them that they're more than just a customer and that you want to be there to help them with the challenges they're facing.  

3.  We started offering less intensive, cheaper "package" options of counseling where people could buy bundles of hours and individual help with college essays.  Today, those package plans account for 20% of our senior-related revenue, and many of those families ultimately upgrade to our full counseling program. 

Lesson learned:  You don't always have to come up with a new product to get new customers.  Instead, try selling your by-produts.  Look at your business and ask, "What else could we sell based on what we've made already?" 

Now, what we didn't do so well.

1.  As the news of the recession got worse, we wanted to work even harder to get new business.  So we invested in some direct mailing campaigns to run free seminars for potential families.  It was only moderately successful.  In retrospect, I would have taken all that money and spent it on our current customers, those people who'd already given us both their money and their trust.

Lesson learned:  Always spend the money and time on your current customers first.  Yes, if you want your business to grow, you've got to find new customers.   But it's much more expensive, and much less effective, to spend money to find a new customer than it is to delight a current one.  Get that right, and your happy customers will do your marketing for you.  

2.  We had to close our office in Los Angeles because our business shrank almost 65%.  That was the worst day of my Collegewise life and it was even worse for the counselors who worked there.  I'm not sure we could have done anything to survive that kind of hit.  But we might have been able to fight a little longer if our fixed costs, especially our rent, weren't so high.

Lesson learned:  Keep your costs as low as you can.  I know this is an obvious one, but when times are good, it's easy to think that you should plan for the continued growth that you're seeing.  It's a lot less stressful to struggle with managing growth than it is to struggle to pay the bills.

 

Why we don’t like career tests

We often have prospective Collegewise families ask us if we do any career testing as part of our program.  That's an easy one.  No.

I understand why they ask.  But if you're looking for college counseling advice based on what a test says your kid's career aptitude is, we're not the right college counselors for you.

Have you ever met a single successful adult who discovered their path because of a career test they took when they were seventeen?  I haven't. 

The truly great counselors we've known would never put much stock in a career test for teens.  We don't think most teenagers are supposed to know what they want to do with their lives yet. And we don't like to see kids making important decisions based on the results of a blunt, one-size fits all, instrument.

Picking a college is an important and potentially expensive decision.  So it's smart for kids to ask themselves if they have any idea what they might want to do with their lives before they decide where to apply.  And if a teen really does have a future career in mind, that should probably be one of many criteria they consider when picking colleges. 

But for most kids, their path to a future successful career probably won't be a straight line.  And we think that's OK.  No need to carve a premature path because of a what a standardized tests tells you to do.

How to be a leader without a leadership position

Every high school has students in leadership positions–student council presidents, yearbook committees, and editors of the school papers. But you don't need to have a leadership position to be a leader.  Leaders rally people towards a better future together, and you don't have to be elected to do that.

Here are five examples of ways you can be a leader in your club or organization even if you haven't been elected to lead.

1.  Unstick a project.

Maybe your club, organization or team has a project that's been stuck, something that the group has been slow in accomplishing.  Why not make it your job to unstick it and get it done?  If it's too big for one person to do, be the one who takes on responsibility for driving the project forward and solicit volunteers to help you.

2.  Grow the group.

A lot of organizations need more members to really be successful.  Make it your mission to find and recruit new members and help the group grow.  Come up with creative ways to get the word out.  Organize activities designed to allow potential new members to learn more about what you all do, like a "Get-to-know-us" barbecue.  Approach people who you think might enjoy what your group does and invite them to come to a meeting.

3.  Solve a problem.

What's something that's slowing down your group's progress or inhibiting your success?  Make it your project to find a solution for the problem.  If your choir needs more sopranos, or your school newspaper needs more advertising, or the French club needs money for its annual luncheon, you could be the leader who solves that problem yourself (or organizes the team effort to do it).

4.  Organize all-star teams.

In a lot of clubs and organizations, teams of people come together based on who is interested in the project.  But those teams may or may not have the right people needed to get the project done.  What if you put a team together for a project based on the relative strengths of the members?  For example, if you're planning the homecoming dance, put an all-star team together.  The best math student can be in charge of keeping track of the money.  The most organized person can keep track of all the project's details.  The funniest member can actually have a job of doing comic relief and keeping peoples' spirits up when the stress builds.  And here's a bonus tip.  When you're putting together an all-star team, ask the quietest person in the group what he or she would like to do and encourage them to join you.  Sometimes it's the quiet people who have the most to contribute–they just haven't told anyone yet. 

5.  Put one of your own skills to use.

If you know how to make good websites, offer to make one for the drama club and put up clips of each of the members' best performances.  If you love to write, start an email newsletter for the student council and write articles are so useful and interesting that the student body will want to opt-in and read them.  If you can play guitar, put a small band together to play at the next club fair.  You're not leading a group, but you'll be leading by example as someone who's enthusiastic and committed to the group.

You don't need the title to be a leader.

A prescription for over-scheduled kids

A lot of today's high school students are completely over-scheduled with absolutely no free time.  That's hazardous to their mental health as well as to their college admissions chances.

It's easy to spot a kid who's over-scheduled.  It's a teenager who doesn't have any life in her face.  She's tired and stressed out.  She spends all her time doing formal activities and meeting with tutors, making calculated choices based on what she thinks will help her get into college. 

If you ask her what she does for fun, she doesn't have an answer.  She doesn't feel confident about her ability to measure up to expectations–her parents', the colleges' or her own.  She spends a lot of time trying to fix her weaknesses, meeting with math tutors and doing test prep.  

If that sounds like you (or your teen), here are some suggestions to help you reclaim some time.

1.  Every day, reserve an hour of time that is just for you.

This should be a time you get to spend doing something that makes you happy.  And don't you dare use that time to study SAT vocabulary.  This is your time to read US Weekly, or play guitar with nobody watching, or listen to music, or play video games.  I don't care what it is.  Don't justify it to anybody.  Just do it.

2. Cut back on the time you spend trying to fix weaknesses. 

It is absurd to think that anyone including the colleges expects you to be great at everything.  If you're meeting with a guitar teacher because you're not very good at guitar but you really want to be, that's great.  But if you're doing yet another round of test-prep for the SAT because your first three tries aren't in Stanford's range, ditch your SAT tutor and pick up the guitar (or the video game or US Weekly).

3.  Don't measure everything by its potential value to colleges.

Your high school career should be about lots of things, and preparing for college is certainly one of them.  But it should also be about being a regular teenager.  Regularly do things that will in no way help you get into college.  Being productive is a good thing, but scheduling every second of your day trying to please colleges is just unreasonable.

4.  Sleep more.  

I'm serious.  Too many kids talk about how they're sleeping 5 or fewer hours a night.  No good.  You need to sleep to function well, to be happy and to enjoy your life.  If there's just no way you could sleep more and still get everything done, then you need to follow tip #2 above and tip #5 below.

5.  Quit any activities that you don't enjoy and/or don't really care about.

It's better (and less stressful) to do a few things that really matter to you than too many that don't.  If you don't look forward to doing one of your activities and/or it just doesn't mean much to you, quit.  If you're worried that quitting will make you look like, well, a quitter on your college applications, then don't list that activity at all.  Problem solved.   

Bonus suggestion:  If you read these tips and say, "I don't have time for free time and sleeping more," buy "How to Be a High School Superstar" and read pages 55-77 about "How to reduce your homework time by 75%."

Is it still worth it to go to college?

In many ways, today's economy actually makes having a college degree less important.

It used to be that just having a college degree was special.  If you applied for a job and you'd been to college, you instantly stood out.  That's not true anymore.  Lots of people have college degrees.  Just about any job for which a recent college grad might apply, there will be at least a dozen other candidates with college degrees who look virtually identical on paper.  

Some people argue that the economy just makes it even more important to attend a prestigious college.  Not true.  There are lots of unemployed Ivy League grads right now.  There are lots of unemployed Ivy League grads who went back and got masters degrees, too.  It's rough out there.

So you could pay up to $150,000 to go to college and come out as just another recent college grad who can't get a job.  If you're going to college just to go, if you're going because you don't know what else to do after high school, that's an awful lot of time and money to invest in something whose rate of return isn't guaranteed at all. 

But I think there's a huge opportunity for future college freshmen here.  Recognize that college is a four-year opportunity to become remarkable–someone future employers won't be able to ignore.

You could coast through your college career, endure your classes and have some fun.  Or you could lean into it.  You could make it your mission to spend every single day of your college career discovering what you're good at, learning as much as you can, finding mentors who can guide you, pushing yourself in classes that scare you (and you could still have plenty of fun). 

Four years later, instead of being just another college grad looking for a first job, you could tell potential employers about…

  • The relief work you did in Haiti when you traveled there with an on-campus service organization.
  • The mistake you found during an accounting internship that saved the company a million dollars.
  • The $250,000 you raised for a non-profit where you volunteered over the summer.
  • The on-campus business you started that later had 20 employees.
  • The changes you made to the athletic department's intramural program during your three years of work that started as an unpaid internship.
  • The political campaign you worked on as an intern, and the on-campus speech for the candidate that happened because of you.
  • The drawings you completed in your art classes that are now featured in the school's largest performing theater. 
  • The 22 websites you built for free for every campus fraternity and sorority.
  • The teaching experience you gained when a professor asked you to TA for her and later to run her discussion group.
  • The speeches you gave to faculty and administrators as part of your work with the ombudsman's office.
  • The work you did with your physics professor to help her publish the latest textbook.
  • The computer program you wrote with a fellow student that you later sold to a software company for a ridiculously large sum of money. 
  • The campus coffee shop you managed during your senior year, and how you grew it 40%.
  • The marketing lessons you learned while working in your college's admissions office to help them recruit under-represented students.
  • The counseling skills you developed as a resident advisor, and how you put them to use when a student was considering committing suicide.
  • The campus photographs you took that the school later paid to have posted on the website.
  • The training program you created from scratch for the campus tour guides that was later adopted by the entire state university system. 
  • The speech the new chancellor asked you to help her write.
  • The meeting you had with the university's president to lobby for additional campus safety officers, and what you learned about beating bureaucracy. 
  • The music you wrote that was later commissioned to be an opera.

Every single one of those items has actually happened.  A few happened to me, others were my college friends, and lots of them are from our former Collegewise students. But they were all products of students who sought out the opportunities and made them happen during their brief four years of college.  

In today's economy, it's easy to ignore a kid with a college degree.  It's a lot harder to ignore one who pairs that degree with a remarkable college career.  It doesn't matter where you go.  Now more than ever, it matters what you do while you're there.

You’re not perfect, and neither is your future college

There's a great line in my favorite movie, Good Will Hunting, in which Will's psychologist says this about Will's new love interest:

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You're not perfect, sport.  And let me save you the suspense–this girl you've met, she's not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you're perfect for each other. That's the whole deal.  That's what intimacy is all about. You can know everything in the world, sport. But the only way of finding out that one is by giving it a shot."

That's a lot like how finding your college match works.

I talk a lot about college matchmaking and finding schools that fit you.  But I don't believe in collegiate soul mates (at least not until you've officially dated one for awhile).

If you're applying to college, you might believe that you've found the one perfect college for you.  But trust me ("sport"), it's not perfect.  No college is.  And it's not the only one where you could be happy.  There are dozens of colleges who's characteristics are similar enough on paper that you couldn't possibly tell the difference between them. 

Wherever you end up at college, there are going to things you like and dislike about it.  But if you choose carefully and then commit to making that four-year relationship work, your chances of looking back on the experience as one spent at your collegiate version of a soul mate increase exponentially.

So don't worry about finding the perfect college.  That would be like evaluating potential dates based on whether or not you want to marry them–you couldn't possibly know for sure.  Instead, accept the uncertainty and concentrate on choosing your list of colleges carefully.  Just as you shouldn't necessarily date anyone who asks, you shouldn't apply to any college just because it looks nice or because other people seem to like it.  Think about what would really make you happy.  Do your research.  Visit colleges campuses.  Enjoy how many great potential matches there are.

Will a college know if you lie on your application?

There is in fact such a thing as a stupid question.  "How could a college really know if you lied on your application?" is a good example of one.

The problem with that question isn't that the answer should be obvious.  It's a stupid question because lying to your colleges is a stupid thing to do.  And most students aren't posing the question hypothetically.  They're asking because they're considering telling the lie.

Colleges know how to spot inconsistencies in your application.  They notice when things you say don't match with what your teachers or counselors say in the letters of recommendation.  And colleges won't hesitate to call your counselor to verify information that doesn't seem right.  They don't do it to catch you in a lie.  They do it to make sure they have accurate information. 

So sure, it's possible that you could claim to be a National Merit finalist and the college would never know.  You could claim to have played two years of varsity soccer when you only played one, that you did 50 hours of community service you didn't really do, or that you've never been suspended from school when, in fact, you were suspended once as a freshman.  A college might never find out. 

But the real question is, is it worth the risk?

If you lie on your college application and a college finds out–no matter what the lie is or how they find out–that's it.  You're not getting in.  And it wouldn't be unheard of for colleges to tell your other colleges what you did.  Colleges know that kids who are willing to take that risk are more likely to do things like cheat on a test or plagiarize a paper.  So the risk dramatically outweighs any potential reward.  And when you sign your college application, you're signing a formal document stating that all of the information is true to the best of your knowledge.  So if you get caught, forget it.  There will be no apologizing your way out of it.

Nice, confident kids who've worked hard don't ask us this question.  So don't let the pressure of college admissions influence you to lie on your college application.  Be better than that.  It's not worth it.  You don't need an admission to Princeton or NYU or UCLA badly enough to lie.  Just be honest.  Be proud of who you are and what you've done.  If you've made mistakes, be mature enough to own up to them.

It's hard not to like and respect people who have the guts to tell the truth. 

Don’t fall for the sham

This whole belief that there are about 40 colleges in the universe that are "better" than all the others?  It's a big sham.  And it's one that far too many students and parents fall for. 

I know that all 2500+ colleges in the country don't offer the same quality of education. A kid who has the intellect and drive to be accepted at Yale wouldn't have the same experience if he attended a college where he was surrounded by students who got all "C's" in high school.  I get that. 

But anyone who suggests that Yale is an empirically "better" school than Michigan, University of Chicago, College of Wooster, UVA, Mt. Holyoke, Haverford, Rice, or Oberlin is flat out wrong.  That's not just some crazy opinion of mine; there are studies that back it up. 

Non-believers should read The Chosen, a UC Berkeley sociologist's exhaustive study of college admissions.  His findings showed there was no measurable difference between the outcomes of students who attended the most selective schools and those who attended any of over a hundred schools that accepted more of their applicants. The graduates of famous colleges don't get better paying jobs, they aren't happier, they aren't more successful, their lives aren't any better, etc.

Yes, there are vast differences between the colleges that accept almost nobody and those that accept almost everybody.  But you've got to go pretty deep–deeper than 30 or 80 or even 100–down the list of 2500 schools before those differences become noticeable. 

It's time for us to ask ourselves, is our obsession with gaining admission to prestigious universities, and all the lost sleep and anxiety that accompanies it really worth it?  Is the third round of test preparation for one last try at the SAT worth it?  Are the multiple tutors to move kids from B's to A's, the clamoring to get into AP classes, the gaming of GPAs, and the measuring of kids' accomplishments based on the potential appeal to colleges really worth it?

Hard work is good.  Emotional investment in your education and your future is good.  Feeding your mind and preparing yourself for admission to a college that accepts other hard-working, intellectually curious students is absolutely worth it.  Do those things, and your life will be different because of it.

But if you're doing it all because you think that only Harvard will do and that a Kenyon education just won't get the job done, you're falling for the sham.

Sizing a student up

Without seeing a transcript, test scores, or a resume, we can learn a lot about a student in 10-15 minutes.  I can't necessarily tell where he'll get into college without more information, but I can tell whether he's going to be successful in the college application process, and even in life after college. 

Here are a few signs (for us) that a student is going places.

1)  He smiles, looks us in the eye, and shakes our hand when we meet him.

2)  He's respectful of his parents, but doesn't let them talk for him.

3)  He's engaged in the conversation.  He doesn't look bored by a discussion of his education.

4)  He asks thoughtful questions.

5) He's self-assured, comfortable talking about himself, while at the same time not seeming too self-impressed.

6)  He admits what he's not good at, where he's made mistakes, or areas of his life where he needs to improve.  He doesn't blame those shortcomings on other people.

7)  He's genuinely interested in the things he's doing.  He can't hide his enthusiasm for water polo, drama or collecting stamps.

8)  He has a favorite class and teacher.

9)  He seems genuinely happy and excited about life after high school.

10)  He thanks us at the end of the meeting.  

I don't care of a kid is a C student with the worst scores in the history of standardized tests.  If he can show us some or all of these qualities, he's got potential, and the right college will help him fulfill it.

Any kid can develop and benefit from these traits.  Almost all of them are about attitude more than they are ability.  So even if your SAT scores are low, or you just can't seem to grasp chemistry, or you didn't make the varsity soccer team, remember that success in the college application process and in life are about more than just your numbers and your accomplishments.

 

Ask Collegewise: Controversial college essays?

Sarah asks:

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I have a student who wants to write an essay about his experience when he was caught dealing pot in high school. Should negative experiences like this be avoided in college admissions essays, even if the student has learned from his mistakes? I'd really appreciate any insight you could share. Thanks.

It's difficult to give good essay advice when we've never met the student and don't necessarily know the whole story. But I'll give it a try.

First, was the student suspended or expelled from school because of this?  Does he now have a criminal record?  If so, chances are he'll be asked about those things on his college applications.  And as soon as he checks the "Yes" box, he's going to need to explain it. That will pretty much end any debate about whether or not to share it because he won't have a choice. 

Assuming he won't be required to disclose it, should he?  There are no firm rules here, but I can tell you that college admissions officers are reluctant to admit anyone who has the potential to put himself or other students at risk.  That's why violence and serious criminal offenses are usually big red flags for admissions officers (so is academic dishonesty, for different reasons).  There are too many other applicants in the pool who don't come with evidence of those risks. 

In the case of the above student, I really can't imagine an essay that's thoughtful enough to make an admissions officer feel good about admitting a student who's dealt drugs.  Maybe if the kid was formally reprimanded (so a punishment has already been handed down), and has since turned that experience into something that positively impacts other students, like teaching drug awareness classes to teens, or working at a drug rehab center.  Maybe.  But the problem is that this kid didn't just do something that was harmful to him–he did something that was harmful to other students.  That's going to be a tough sell. 

Sometimes a student wants to write about a potentially risky topic in which she hasn't necessarily done nothing wrong, like a struggle with mental or emotional problems, or a suicide attempt.  Those topics can be risky because the admissions officer has to be concerned about the applicant's well-being in college.  College can be a difficult transition under the best of circumstances, and no school wants to put a student in an environment that could be detrimental to your mental or physical health.  If you feel compelled to share a story like this, make sure you show them how you've come out on the other side.  Talk about how well you're doing today, what steps you're taking to maintain your health, and if you're doing anything to help others who may be experiencing the same troubles.  And if you're still not sure, it's probably best to get some admissions advice from your high school counselor with whom you can share the entire story.

Every situation is different, obviously.  But I hope these guidelines help a little bit.