Search Results for: potential

Make your next presentation equipment-free

I speak at a lot of high school events and conferences.  And whenever the organizers ask me if I need anything for my talk—a whiteboard, a chalkboard, an overhead projector, a laptop, a screen, a can of Red Bull, whatever—my answer is always the same.

“Nope—I’m all set!”

Unless the room and crowd are large enough that I need a microphone, I go AV (audio visual) free for all my presentations.  Here’s why I think other counselors and educators should, too.

1. More equipment means more potential for problems.

Every piece of equipment you need for your presentation is just another chance for something to go wrong.  What if the bulb burns out in your projector?  What if the cables aren’t long enough to reach from the power outlet to your laptop?  What if the motor in the screen shorts out and you can’t lower it for your presentation?  What if the pens for the whiteboard have dried up?  I’ve seen all of those things happen to speakers. And instead of calmly and confidently starting their talks on time, they were flustered, late, and had to open with apologies to the audience.  I’m not just being a technophobe here.  If it could happen to Steve Jobs, it can happen to me (and to you).

2.    No equipment makes you a low-maintenance speaker.

The more you need, the more work you create for the person who invited you.  I don’t want a counselor or conference organizer to regret inviting me before I even show up.  And I’d rather the organizers spend their time promoting the event than worry about getting me a ground floor room opened for me at least 30 minutes beforehand with a screen and an overhead projector with laptop capability positioned no farther than 10 feet from the nearest power outlet.  If they can just get the room open and deliver a crowd, I can take it from there, which brings me to…

3. No equipment puts you in control.

Without any equipment, the only thing I need to worry about is the one thing that matters most—the quality and content of what I’m going to say.  I know that no matter what happens, as long as I take care of my responsibility to deliver a good talk, everything else will be fine.  And instead of spending half an hour before the talk making sure my AV equipment works, I can find a quiet spot and review the talk one last time before I’m on.

4. Equipment almost never improves a presentation.

In the history of public speaking, no audience member has ever left a presentation saying,

“I really loved the bullet points on slide 18!”

And yet at so many of the conferences I attend, the speakers are totally dependent on their PowerPoint slides.  Instead of looking at the audience, they look at their slides.  Instead of speaking naturally and sharing relevant examples, they read from their slides and expect the audience to stay interested.  AV becomes a crutch rather than something that improves the talk.  The more you rely on the slides, the less likely the audience will be to listen to you.

5.  You’re good enough without the AV.

If you’re invited to speak to a group, it’s not because they like your technology; it’s because they believe you’ve got something interesting and useful to say to their group.  And they’re right.  So give yourself enough credit to be able to say it without the help of technology.   Trade all the time you would have spent finding the right clip art for your slides and practicing timing the talk with the PowerPoint and spend it on proving to the organizers they made the right choice.  You’re good enough on your own.

If you absolutely insist on using technology, here’s a tip.  Start by preparing your talk without all the technology.  Make it as good as it can possibly be on its own.  And be ready to deliver it that way.  Then add in the technology if you’re sure it’s necessary (it’s probably not, but if you’re going to do it, get the talk right first).  That way, if something goes technologically awry, you can fall back on your original version of the talk, equipment-free.

Ten ways getting into college is like dating

I often tell groups of high school students and their parents that getting into college is a lot like dating.  What I don’t tell them is that I have a lot more demonstrated historical expertise in college admissions than I do in romance.  Still, I’ll forge ahead anyway here and share ten things to remember as you find your way to the right college. 

1. Don’t fall for a college just because it’s popular.  Popularity alone isn’t a reliable measure of the quality of a college or a person.  And it’s a totally unreliable measure of whether or not the two of you would be great together. 

2. There are plenty of potential matches out there.  There are over 2,000 colleges; you’ll eventually find and get into one that’s right for you, no matter what your SAT scores are.  (I’m trying hard to avoid the “plenty of fish in the sea” cliché.)

3. You should never fundamentally change who you are just to get someone to like you.  It’s one thing to take math classes after school because you love math.  It’s another thing entirely to do it because you’re hoping it will make Yale like you more.

4. Don’t fall in love too fast.  It’s easy to get seduced and believe that your dream college is the only place where you could ever be happy.  But trust me, it’s not.   See #2.  

5. It’s good to be confident, but it’s never good to be arrogant.  Colleges and people will be more likely to appreciate you if you believe in yourself, but also acknowledge your weaknesses and how much you have left to learn. 

6. Don’t try too hard to sound impressive.  Would you ever say to someone on a first date, “I learned a multitude of valuable lessons about leadership and working well with others during my time as treasurer of the student body”?  I hope not.  So don’t do it in your college essays or interviews either.  It’s fine to speak proudly about the things that make you proud.  But nobody likes a stilted sales pitch where you’re trying too hard to impress.

7. The pain of a rejection will be temporary.  Yes, a college rejection can be painful.  But you should know that the initial sting never lasts. That’s why you’ll never meet a 40-year-old who’s still smarting from a college rejection or a high school breakup. 

8. Speaking of rejection, if a college breaks your heart, it’s their loss.  Dust yourself off, move on and find happiness someplace (or with someone) else.  Lots of people don’t get into their dream colleges or marry their high school sweethearts.  They recover and are usually thankful later on after they find even better matches.  You will, too.

9. Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect college.  A school might seem that way on the outside, but the flaws will reveal themselves once you spend some real time together.  Expect it—it’s normal.  You’ll just have to commit to doing your part to make the relationship work.   

10. There is no magic forumla.  There are no such formulas for college, romance, or life.  If there were, someone would have found and profited from them already.  All you can do is work hard, do things you enjoy, be a good person, and trust that things will be OK.  They really will.  I promise.

How counselors and teachers can help students write better college essays

StoryFindersimage Earlier this month, we released our first book:  Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (Without Helping Too Much).    Here's some background on our essay process, why we wrote it, and what's included in the book.

How this book came to be

During the first few years of Collegewise, I could help every student with their essays by myself.  But as we grew from working with 20 seniors a year to over 200 and we opened additional offices, we had to find a way to replicate what I was doing.  I didn’t want something that would produce finished essays the way a fast food franchise churns out hamburgers.  We needed a system that could help 500 kids tell 500 unique stories all of which were genuine reflections of each writer.          

Today, we hire “essay specialists” and put them through a four-hour training program.  Students (and interested parents) attend a 90-minute college essay workshop.  Students complete a set of brainstorming questions at home, then come to a one-hour meeting with an essay specialist.  Our students then write their drafts and send them to us for feedback.  And we know exactly how to give helpful feedback without ever jumping in and doing it for the student.  One workshop, one meeting, and a couple rounds of editing means that in 2-3 weeks, our kids have completed several college essays.  That’s our college essay system that we explain in this book.

Why we wrote the book

We’ve shared pieces of our system at high school workshops, with teachers and counselors at regional NACAC conferences, and at in-service sessions at several trainings for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) teachers. But we’ve never had enough time together to say, “Here’s everything we do with college essays—take as much or as little as you want back to your schools and use it to help your kids.”  That’s what we wanted to do with our book. 

What’s included in the book?

1. What counselors and teachers need to know about college essays

The college admissions process isn’t a featured subject in most credentialing programs for teachers and counselors.  But a lot of English teachers and counselors are expected to be experts when they help students with college essays.  I don’t want to make the same assumption of expertise here.  Our book explains exactly how colleges use essays, the differences between a college essay and one written in a high school English class, and the most common mistakes students make on their college essays.  

2.  The Collegewise college essay workshop

We walk readers through each section of our college essay workshop that we teach to our students and parents, and that we share when we’re invited to speak at high schools.  

3.  The Collegewise essay brainstorming meeting

We explain exactly what we do in our one-hour meeting with each of our students to help them find good stories.  This chapter explains how to do what we do in that meeting.  We include our brainstorming questions and describe how we use them, outline what we do in a brainstorming meeting with a student, and share how we recognize a potentially good story. 

4.  How Collegewise gives essay feedback to students

This section shares our complete editing process, along with some tips to get the job done faster if you have a large caseload.

5.  Recommended college essay lesson plans 

We recommend different ways to use the materials depending on how much time a teacher or counselor has to spend with students.  If you want to use the entire system and you have the time to do the class, brainstorming and editing, take it all as is and get to work.  If you just want to do the class, or just help kids pick their stories, or just review what kids write on their own, use just those parts of the system.  And if you already have your own system that works well and just want to cherry pick components of ours that might be useful, pick away. 

6. Access to free resources

Readers are also given a link to access clean copies of our essay workshop handout (teacher and student versions), brainstorming questions, and samples of our essay commentary.  

The finished product

We’re really proud of our system and the book, and the feedback we’ve gotten from teachers and counselors has been great.  I even bought a copy for my mom, a former high school English teacher, just so she has something to show her friends, and even she liked it (though she’s admittedly a little biased).

Over 3,000 students have gone through our Collegewise program.  Thousands of other kids have heard us speak at their high schools or sent us their essays just for a second opinion.  We’ve been able to help students of all levels of achievement and writing abilities find and share interesting stories about themselves.  We’ve done it in a way that doesn’t violate the integrity of the process and that keeps kids completely in charge of their stories and their writing.  And now we’re hoping that lots of counselors and teachers will be able to do the same with our book in hand.    

Where to buy it

We self-published the book at and it’s available here for $49.95.  We know that’s not cheap for a book.  But with the access to clean copies of our downloadable materials, buyers aren’t just getting the book; they’re getting our entire college essay system that we’ve spent the last 12 years perfecting. 

We’re really proud of the finished product and believe that we’re now going to be able to help a lot of teachers and counselors guide their kids through the college essay process.

Free workshops in Irvine, Calif., on 8/20 and 8/27

On 8/20 and 8/27 in our Irvine, CA offices, we've decided to film videos of Arun and me doing our most popular Collegewise seminars.  Collegewise families and their special guests have already had the opportunity to register, but we've got a few seats left at two of the seminars (and we can’t possibly unleash our full Hollywood speaking potential to anything less than a packed house).  So we're opening them up to the public now until the seats are full.  

Here are the available seminars and the information for how to register.

Saturday, August 20

How to Write Great College Essays
11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

A lot of good kids write bad college essays about how soccer taught them the importance of teamwork, or how they struggled to adapt to strange cultures during a trip to Paris.  Come to this seminar to learn what admissions officers want (and don't want) to read, and how to identify stories that will make your application stand out.  I'll be doing this seminar. 

Saturday, August 27

College Admissions 201: Admission to The Most Selective Colleges
11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

This seminar will teach you how schools like the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, Duke, and the rest of the nation’s most selective colleges make decisions from pools full of the most qualified applicants.  And it will feature Arun–a partner at Collegewise, a former Assistant Director of Admissions at Caltech and the University of Chicago, and a former admissions reader for UCLA.


The Collegewise offices: 
2081 Business Center Dr., #280, Irvine, CA 92612


Just drop an email to and tell us which seminars you’d like to attend and how many will be attending.  We'll set up an auto reply so you'll get a confirmation of your RSVP.  If the seminars fill up, I'll mention it here, and I'll change the auto-reply so new registrants will know that we were too full to accept their reservation.

Two important things before your register:

1.  All attendees will be required to sign a release form giving us permission to use your image in our video should the camera happen to pass over you during the presentation (don't worry–we won't be asking you to do anything other than enjoy yourselves).

2.  Once filming starts, we can't allow any late arrivals into the room.  We'll be closing the doors at the exact start time of the seminar, so please get here 10 minutes early.

We hope to see you here!

What is your online legacy?

Before you share anything in an electronic format—an email, a photo, a blog post, etc.—ask yourself if you would be comfortable with it showing up whenever anyone Googles your name.  Forever.  Potential viewers include the colleges you’ll apply to, friends, your family, future employers, and people you haven’t met yet but will one day want to date.

Last Friday, a Whole Foods worker who was at best disgruntled and at worst, well, a little deranged, penned a 2000-word resignation letter loaded with anger, personal insults, and gems like,

“Oh, you actually think being 20 minutes late matters? You know Whole Foods Market is just a grocery store, right?”

At some point, someone will unearth the author’s name.  And that means that for the rest of his/her life, there will be no escaping it.  That letter will be his/her online legacy.  Google will never forget, even when other people do. 

Can you even imagine the long term damage that’s going to carry for the writer?   How long will that person have to regret hitting “Send”?

I’m not suggesting that a 2000-word tirade is the same as one Tweet or a Facebook photo.  But today’s high school students are the digital generation.  You live in a reality where people have been humiliated, fired, divorced, sued, and even prosecuted because of things they or other people have posted online. 

Be protective of your online legacy.  I don’t have to answer for anything I said or did way back when I was sixteen.  Today’s students won’t necessarily have the same luxury.

The best way to grow your business, club, college, etc.


It’s counterintuitive, but the way to grow your business is to focus entirely on your existing customers.  Just thrill them, and they’ll tell everyone.

Anything You Want
Derek Sivers (Founder of CDBaby)

Turns out that's not just true for businesses.

The best way to grow your independent school is to make your current families so happy they can't help but talk about you.

The best way to grow your club or organization is to make it so rewarding for your current members that they talk voluntarily about how much they love it.

If you want to grow your community organization, make your volunteers feel even more appreciated and rewarded.  They'll tell people for you. 

If you want to have more dates, make your current significant other so happy that…wait, yeah, that one doesn't work.

If you want to grow your readership of your school newspaper, blog or newsletter, write the articles your existing readers want to read.  They'll share them with like-minded potential readers. 

And colleges, if you want more students, if you want more applications from those students who are most likely to enroll, and if you want more donations from your alumni, stop spending so much money trying to find and sell to potential students.  Slash the budget for the marketing consultants and the direct mailings and the branding experts.  Redirect that money towards your existing customers (your current students and their families).  Make them feel so lucky to have found you that they can't help but tell everyone how great their experience is.  That will be worth more to you than any mailing list or social media campaign.

If you’re worried you won’t get in anywhere…

If you're not sure whether or not you'll be accepted to any college at all, here's something that might encourage you.  Go to the College Board's website and use their "College MatchMaker" function.  Select "Four Year" colleges and then, under "Admissions" select "More than 75% accepted."

You'll find over 400 colleges (roughly 20% of the total number of four-year colleges in the United States) that take nearly everyone who applies.

From there, you can limit the search to particular states, number of students that attend, or what majors are offered.  But start with the broad list and then start eliminating.  

And you might be interested in one of my old posts about how B and C students can still show their potential to colleges. 

There's probably a college out there for you if you want to go.

Can you go over the word limit in a college essay?

Most college essays have a stated word-limit.  But admissions officers will enforce the spirit, not the letter of the law here.  You need to follow directions, but as long as the college’s online application doesn’t cut you off, it’s fine to go over the word limit by 10-20 words in a short essay, and maybe by a few sentences in a long essay.  Colleges have better things to do than to check the word counts of your essays for minor infractions.  

Just remember that brevity is a mark of good writing.  As much as you might be convinced that you can't possibly unleash your full essay potential without a few extra paragraphs, the truth is that you need fewer words than you think you do.  It's a college essay, not War and Peace.  Good writers do a lot of editing and rewriting to say more with fewer words.

You can find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

Written by real people, for real people

Too many business websites are filled with jargon and business-speak, afraid to just talk to their potential customers like real people.  So I love it when I come across a business who gets it right.  Here are a few examples of sites I think do a great job of not just explaining (clearly) what they do, but also who they are, what they care about, and what type of customer will enjoy doing business with them.

Emma Email Marketing 

Full disclosure—we’re an Emma customer and we’re featured in their “customer stories.”  But while I think their service is great, what drew me to them in the first place was their website. 

I love the way they come right out and explain what their service does in plain, often funny, English.  Check out the "Meet Us" section.  You feel like you get to know the company, what they stand for, and the people who work there.  And best of all, it feels like they’ve taken a lot of time to not only share what they want visitors to know, but also to figure out what a visitor wants shared.   

Saddleback Leather  Saddleback
I've never bought anything from Saddleback Leather, but I love that the founder, Dave, doesn’t try to sound like a big company—he isn’t one.  He’s one-person shop who’s proud of what he does, passionate about his work, and comfortable sharing his story in real language, like this paragraph from the Saddleback story.


It all began when I had my first bag made while living in Southern Mexico as a volunteer English teacher to kids who needed a little help. I had looked everywhere for just the right bag, but with no luck…In my search, I walked into a little leather shop and met the fellow working leather in the back. I asked him if he could make me a bag if I were to draw it out. I told him that I wanted this bag to be made so well that my grandkids would be fighting over it while I was still warm in the grave. He said “Si” and I said “Bueno” and that’s how it all started.

And Dave’s got some swagger.  He lists the websites of all his major competitors and tells visitors, "Go ahead… the more you shop, the better we look."

Contrast the feel of Dave’s site with that of industry giant Coach.  Here’s a snippet from their “Mission Statement


The Brand is our touchstone.  The Coach brand represents a unique synthesis of magic and logic that stands for quality, authenticity, value and a truly aspirational, distinctive American style. Everything we make, advocate or engage in reflects the attributes of the brand.”

Does this make you want to buy from Coach?  No.  What does it even mean?  It sounds like it was written by a marketing committee, not a real person who's passionate about making great leather bags.  And I’m pretty sure “aspirational” isn’t a real word, but we’ll leave that alone for now.

Rivendell Bicycle Works
I’m not a cyclist, but it’s obvious that the folks behind Rivendell Bicycle Works are.  They’re not trying to sell to everybody—just to people who are most likely to appreciate what they do.  Check out how direct and opinionated they are on their big picture page.  


For non-competitive riding, it's hard to justify tires smaller than 28mm.  Actually, it's hard to justify tires smaller than 32mm. Unless your justification amounts to, "I just bought some, I ride them, I say I like 'em, and that's final." Logic always loses arguments with emotion!

"You may personally prefer welded frames, or fillet-brazed frames, and that’s fine. We prefer them lugged, and so that’s all we make."

"Modern bikes have too many gears…Our attitude toward the number of cogs on the rear hub is: Seven is heaven, eight is great, nine is fine, ten is kind of getting ridiculous, but it won’t kill you."

They even offer tips for happy riding.  Here are a few:


Signal your approach to pedestrians, especially if they're old, and a bell is better than "On your left!" If no bell, try clacking your brake levers. If all you got is "On your left!" that's fine, but if you ride a lot on paths, get a bell.

"Carry an extra tube you can give to somebody with a flat tire and just a repair kit."

"If you're a guy, don't try to be a mentor to every female cyclist you meet."

"Put a $20 bill inside your seat post or handlebar and hold it there, somehow."

"Don't ride until you're confident you can fix a flat."

If you're not an over-the-top bike enthusiast and you just want something cheap, you aren't a customer who's going to buy from Rivendell.  So they don't try to sell to you.  If you're fanatical about pedals and frames and tires–you're just like folks at Rivendell.  They make gear for you.  Then they come right out and tell you what they're all about.  There’s no boring writing here.  The copy’s got oomph.  It makes me wish I were a cyclist. 

Whether you're writing a business website, a blog, a college essay, or even an email messages, it's always best to be clear, be honest and be yourself.  Write like a real person who's writing to real people, because you (almost) always are.

Cultivating good writing

One of my friend’s (now former) bosses once sent the company a two page email that did something amazing—it said absolutely nothing.  Our group of friends has since read it dozens of times trying to find one cogent point (it’s possible we’ve even done dramatic readings).  But we can’t find one.  It’s just two pages of vague abstractions and generalities punctuated with phrases like, “The big duh is…” and “It’s here like a really loud knock at the door.”  It's hard to believe that the writer really expected anyone to appreciate or benefit from the message.  And if you're going to say nothing at all, you’d be better off sending just that—nothing at all.     

I’ve written before about the dangers of bad writing in business and college essays.  But for high school students, here are a few more writing thoughts, whether or not you consider yourself a writer.   

1. If you like to write, work hard to get great at it.
Writing is a strength worth maximizing.  Do rough drafts of your essays and get your teacher’s feedback before turning in your final version.  Enroll in a creative writing or business communication class at your local community college.  Take the extra five minutes to write a good email that’s properly punctuated.  Writing happens to be one of those strengths that gets regularly rewarded in both your personal and professional life.  So why not maximize that strength?   

2. If you don’t like to write, work to get better at it.
I think students should spend less time fixing their weaknesses and more time improving their strengths.  But writing is just too important to be bad at it.  You can’t get into college without writing an essay.  You can’t get a job without writing a cover letter.  You can’t communicate with anyone of importance without writing an email.  It's usually not fun to work at something you struggle doing.  But you have a choice.  You can spend time improving your writing or you can lament the opportunities you miss because your writing wasn’t up to par.  Here’s a recent post from Seth Godin with some simple rules for better writing, and one of mine on how to write a good email message. 

3. Make sure your organization has great writers on staff. 
When we hire anyone at Collegewise—from counselors to editors to assistants—we pay great attention to their cover letters (and we’re not the only company who does this).   I think great writing is a sign of clear thinking as well as clear communicating.  When we’re trying to decide between two potential hires at Collegewise, we always hire the better writer.   

There’s no reason leaders in high school activities couldn’t do the same thing.  Whether you’re in the student counsel, the Spanish Club or the National Honor Society, identify who the great writers are.  If you don’t have any, recruit some.  Run an announcement in the daily bulletin that the Spanish Club is looking for a good writer to join their ranks.  Then put those writers to use, which brings me to… 

4. Let your best writers handle your organization’s written communications.
If you’re going to send something out to your club, team, school yearbook staff, etc., have one of the designated writers handle it.  If the message really needs to come from a specific person who isn’t one of the writers, have that person write the message and let one of the writers edit it.  If you’re saying to yourself, “But that takes so much longer,” you’re right.   You can have speed, or you can have great writing.  But you can’t always have both.