Search Results for: potential

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.

On last impressions

Every year in June, Collegewise families are invited to re-enroll in the next level of our program.  Most continue with us, but not all.  Some decide that they just don't need a college counselor or that their student should go to community college first.  Other times, we mutually decide that we're not a great fit together and we refer them to another counselor who we think may be right for them.  But no matter what the circumstance, we try to part ways on great terms. 

We want people to feel good about their experience with us even if they leave our program.  And what they'll remember most is their last interaction, the way we conducted ourselves once we knew it was over between us.  That's the last impression we leave, and we want to make it count.

Last week, I told one of our vendors that after eight years, I wouldn't need their services again this year.  I made it clear that there were no hard feelings and that I wasn't unhappy–I just didn't have a need for them any longer.  All I got in response was a brief–"OK, we'll cancel the invoice."

There's nothing wrong with what they did.  But how hard would it have been to send me a nice email and thank me for doing business with them for almost a decade?  I've probably spent over $5,000 during that time.  How much would it have taken to do just a little extra to part good friends rather than mutual acquaintances.

Had they done just a little more to make my last impression a better one, I would be singing their praises.  I'd go out of my way to refer potential business to them because of how I remembered that last interaction. It wouldn't have been that hard.  Wouldn't it have been worth it?

We can talk about making a great first impression.  But maybe the last one is more important?

How to make your next brainstorming meeting more productive

When we're in meetings with families at Collegewise, we spend as much time talking as we do listening. We have to listen carefully to know what advice to give, but if we tried to play amateur therapists and just kept asking, "How does that make you feel?" without saying anything in return, they'd start to wonder what they're getting out of this. 

But when we brainstorm a college essay with a student, it's the student's time to talk (as it's the student's essay to write).  So we have Collegewise kids write responses to 20 "Brainstorming questions" ahead of time and bring it with them to the meeting.  This lets them take as much time as they'd like to think about the answers and to share the parts that are most important to them.  During the meeting, we read the responses and ask them to tell us more.  And we follow the 70/30 rule–they talk 70% of the time, we talk only 30%.  That's why we can always spot a great story without hijacking the process.  Every student–even a shy one–gets a chance to develop, share and write her own ideas.

Chip and Dan Heath sent this newsletter today and offered a similar tip to make your next meeting even more effective.  Try it at your next meeting for the school newspaper, Spanish Club, PTA, etc.  And if you're a counselor, try it when you help a student brainstorm college essays.


Change the way you brainstorm.
In most brainstorming session, the "talkers" in the group will share a few ideas, and then others will chime in with refinements of those initial ideas (rather than introducing a radically different point of departure). The effect is that, within 10 minutes, the group has shut down 99% of the potential conversation paths. One easy way to correct for this is to have every member of the team brainstorm privately and record their thoughts prior to the meeting. Then, start the meeting by asking people to share their ideas before the group discussion begins. That way, you can be more confident that you've charted more of the "landscape of ideas," rather than simply building on the (possibly misguided) ideas of the group's loudest members."

Wanted: grammar snobs with big hearts

Do you have a good rapport with teenagers?  Do you enjoy helping students improve their writing?  Do you like hearing and sharing great stories? If you answered “yes,” you might enjoy helping high school kids with college essays (or you might be someone who compulsively responds with an emphatic “yes!” to any question posed to you).

Our Irvine, CA office is hiring college essay specialists.

What exactly is a college essay specialist?

Our college essay specialists meet with high school kids to help those students find their best stories for their college application essays.  Essay specialists then review the students’ drafts and provide written feedback.  We do not write essays for students or take creative license in any way, as doing so would not only be wrong, but would also actually prevent kids from being accepted to college.   

Five things potential essay specialists should know

1. Employment is seasonal from June-November.

2. We need people approximately 4-12 hours per week (specific days and hours are flexible).

3. Hourly pay is approximately $25 depending on the specific work you’re doing.

4. While editing may be done from home, essay specialists must be willing to commute to our Irvine, CA office 1-3 times per week to meet with students. 

5. We will provide the necessary training on our essay process.

Who is Collegewise?
We’re a college counseling company who believes that while going to college is important, going to a famous college is not.  Our college counselors show families just how many great colleges are out there, help relieve their anxieties, and try to inject some much needed perspective into the college admissions process.  Since 1999, we’ve helped over 3000 students attend 800 different colleges. We encourage kids to be themselves, to do what they love, and to strongly reconsider writing a college essay about how volunteering on one blood drive taught them the importance of serving humanity.  You can learn more about us on our website.   

Is there anything else you should know before you apply?
Our essay specialists who are great at this job have a background in teaching, tutoring, writing, and/or editing.  They love the convenience of editing from home but also relish the opportunity to meet face-to-face with high school kids in our offices a few hours a week.  They would never get angry with a student who accidentally left a modifier dangling, but would likely refuse on principle to order food at a restaurant whose menu used the wrong version of “your.”  They’re smart, cool, and frankly, quite pleasant to be around.  

How to apply
If your interest is piqued, get to know us a little better by looking around our website.  Find out more about what we do, who you’d be working with and what we believe.  If you like what you read and think you could find a professional home here, please send a resume and cover letter to Allison Cummings, Director, at  We don’t play generic here.  Like a great college essay, we think a great cover letter should help us get to know who you really are and what makes you tick.  We love style and panache.  So don’t be afraid to be yourself (smart, thoughtful, or maybe even funny).  No calls, please.  And here are a few totally unsolicited tips for job-seekers.

We hope to hear from you.  And if we don't, we hope you find the perfect professional fit someplace else.

Are qualifications alone enough?

Does the most qualified applicant for the job or the promotion always get hired?

What if the best computer programmer for the new job doesn't get along with his co-workers?  Does the salesman with the best numbers deserve the promotion if the product and customer base are dramatically different from those where she's had success?  Would you hire a new journalism teacher with a degree in English from Yale over a history teacher on your staff who stays late to tutor students and asks for a chance to teach journalism?  There's no easy right answer in each scenario.

Most people accept that in a hiring process, qualifications are the most important consideration, but rarely the only one.  College admissions is very much the same.

Some large state universities have admissions policies that are pure meritocracies where the highest grades and test scores win.  But for many colleges, picking a freshman class is a lot like hiring for an entire new division of a company.  Qualifications always drive the process, but the ultimate decisions are more nuanced.  

It's easier to make peace with the college admissions process if you accept that colleges work a lot like the rest of the world.  The programming whiz, the sales guru and the Yale grad may not always get the job, but they won't spend their lives unemployed, either.  And the seemingly qualified applicant who gets a rejection from Dartmouth will almost certainly have acceptances from other colleges where he can go and fulfill his potential. 

It may not seem fair at times, but college admissions can be good life training, too.

When colleges ask you where else you are applying

Some colleges will ask you on their applications or during interviews to name the other colleges you're applying to.  Sometimes they'll even ask why you've decided to apply to each of those other schools.  This can feel a little bit like a potential date asking you who else you're interested in and why.  You don't want to lie but it feels like you're doing something wrong by keeping your options open.

But don't worry about it (for the colleges, I mean–you're on your own for the dating scenario.)

Unlike a potential date, no reasonable college will ever hold it against you if you aren't ready to pledge your love to them only.  They know that most students apply to more than one college.  As long as you aren't leading them on and pretending to be interested when you're not, they won't take it personally that they're not necessarily the only one for you. 

So when a college asks, tell the truth.  Be proud of where else you're applying and share your real reasons why you're doing so.  Telling a college which other schools are on your list along with a good description about why you think you'd love attending each of them is the sign of a mature, savvy college shopper.  It shows them that you're excited about your college future and that you know there are plenty of great schools out there where you could be happy and successful. 

It won't make you seem any less interested in this particular school.  In fact, being confident and excited about all your options will probably make them all that much more interested in you.

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.