Search Results for: potential

Find your fun

One of the worst symptoms of the college admissions arms race is the disappearance of downtime, frivolity, or anything else that can’t be directly connected to a college admissions advantage. Kids stop being kids and spend all their time resume building, measuring the worth of every potential choice with, “Will this help me get in?”

Here’s one deceptively simple way to combat that. Many colleges, and college interviews, ask the question, “What do you do for fun?” To not have a genuine answer that lights up would actually be an admissions disadvantage. You’re hurting your chances if you don’t regularly have a little fun.

Please don’t tell me you don’t have time. If that’s actually a true statement, you’ve just identified a problem. Now it’s time to change it.

And if you don’t have an answer to the “What do you do for fun?” question, now is the time to find one.

One chapter

I flew to England last week to attend my brother-in-law’s graduation from Oxford, where he and 300 other overachievers from around the world earned their MBAs. Not surprisingly, the people I met were an impressive collection of varied successes. I met a 23-year-old Rhodes Scholar who was already earning his second master’s at Oxford. I met a woman who’d spent the last year in Rwanda working to stop some of the worst forms of child labor. I met a business owner whose company installs solar farms all over Europe, several students who left behind lucrative careers in investment banking and venture capital, and budding entrepreneurs who’d secured multiple post-graduation pitch meetings with potential investors.

I certainly didn’t meet anywhere near all 300 of the graduates. But of the dozen or so that I did get to chat with, only one attended a college that would likely be described by most of my readers as prestigious—UCLA. The rest went to schools that included Occidental, Northeastern, Emory, Arizona State, and multiple international colleges I’d never heard of.

And while each of them when asked (as I have a tendency to do) spoke fondly of their college years, not one of them credited their college with their success. For each, college was an important, memorable four-year period on a continuous path of work, learning, growth, successes, and yes, failures. College is an important chapter of their story, not the entire story.

It’s easy for high school students and their parents to get so immersed in the quest to get into college that they lose perspective on the relative importance of what will eventually be a student’s adult life. Given the time, money, and energy you’ll have to spend to get in and to succeed once you’re in college, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t treat the process with respect. But nobody’s future was ever made or broken with one piece of good or bad admissions news from your dream school. According to the class profile, the average student in this Oxford graduating class had been out of college for only five years. Yet most spoke of their undergraduate years like ancient, albeit wonderful, history.

College will be an important chapter in your life. But no matter where you go, the rest of your story can be a page-turner if you want it to be. One chapter doesn’t make or break the entire book.

Monday morning Q&A: Choosing a private counselor

Ai asks:

What are the most important qualifications that a family should consider when hiring a college admissions counselor?

I started writing a reply and experienced déjà vu. Sure enough, here’s my answer to this very question written seven years ago.  All of that advice still stands, and I encourage you and any other readers to start there. But here are a few more thoughts gleaned from seven more years of experience (and over 2500 blog posts) since then.

Credentials like admissions or counseling experience, an advanced degree, or a good reputation in town are worth noting because they are, at the very least, the marks of a professional who treats this craft as more than just a hobby. But none of those qualifications alone guarantees that a private counselor will be willing or able to deliver the change you’re hoping they can make for your family. So a good place to start is by answering this question, which might be an uncomfortable exercise for some parents. If you had to be brutally honest, why exactly are you considering hiring a private counselor?

Your brutally honest answer might be purely mechanical, like:

We know there are lots of good colleges, but we need help finding them.

The process seems really complex, and I think it would help to have an expert who could guide us through it.

But for many other parents, the brutal honesty sweeps away the half-truth factual answers and reveals the more emotional reasons that might be uncomfortable admitting to yourself or others, like:

Every parent in my circle has hired a private counselor, and I feel like I’m letting my student down by not doing the same.

I’m scared to death that my kid is going to make a mistake and I’ll feel terrible I didn’t catch it.

I don’t want to fight with my son about this anymore. I’m tired. I want someone else to nag him and explain why this is all so important.

I want my daughter to go to a prestigious college, and I’m willing to pay for an advantage if the right person can give it to me.

I’m not endorsing or rejecting any of these reasons—you get to have them as this is your student’s college process, after all. But whatever your answer is, mechanical, emotional, or somewhere in between, you won’t feel good spending money for help unless that person creates the change you’re looking for. And credentials alone won’t tell you whether or not a potential counselor is willing or able to deliver that outcome for you. You’ll need to have a very real, open conversation about your expectations and what a successful outcome looks like to you. The right counselor for you will understand and appreciate how forthright you are, and they’ll be both honest and specific about whether they can deliver what you’re looking for.

Some parents may resist what feels like a psychological exercise, but you’re not buying a car, a computer, or a new roof for your house—this is guidance for your student’s journey to college. There are stakes and emotions in play here that need to be acknowledged by all parties. The more willing you are to do just that, the more likely you’ll be to make the right choice for you and your student, especially if you follow the advice in that past post referenced above.

Thanks for your question, Ai!

If you’ve got a question, feel free to submit it here. I’ll answer another next week.

Their best adult selves

One of my high school friends just started a new job as the principal at the same high school his own kids attend. He shared a photo on social media this week of his ear-to-ear grin while standing next to his two good-natured teens on their first day of school together.

But back in high school, he was the guy in our first period Spanish class who would read the daily bulletin and make up stories along the way just to delay the start of the actual instruction as long as possible. He also spent one day repeatedly and clandestinely climbing out the window of that classroom and then reentering through the front door to the amusement of the students and the flummoxed stare of our teacher, who couldn’t figure out how he kept entering seemingly without ever exiting.

Parents, you can take some worry and pressure off yourself—and maybe your kids, too—with the occasional reminder that high schoolers today aren’t yet who they’ll be tomorrow. Whether or not your student is achieving at their full potential, time, college, and the right parenting combination of expectations and unconditional love have a wonderful way of helping them eventually become their best adult selves.

Changing tides

At the speeches I would give at Southern California high schools shortly after starting Collegewise in 1999, one line was always guaranteed to get a big laugh from the crowd.

“Southern Californian kids aren’t going to arrive at the breakfast table one morning and announce to their parents, ‘Today is the day I apply to the University of Alabama.’”

No insult intended to ‘Bama fans or alums. That joke had nothing to do with the quality of the school, the education, or the experience. Kids and parents everywhere have preconceived notions about particular colleges, geographic regions, and even weather, many if not most of which are not rooted in facts. At that time, in those zip codes, for those particular families, the notion that a student would travel all the way to Alabama to attend a big public school in lieu of attending others that were closer, more prestigious, or both, just seemed nonsensical to them.

I’m happy to report that the joke would never work for those same audiences today.

Alabama gets applications from plenty of Southern Californian students today, including those from high schools where I’ve made that joke. And many of our former Collegewise students from those and other areas have gone on to Alabama and now happily sign off their emails to us with “Roll Tide!

The school didn’t fundamentally change during that time—the students (and parents) did. It only takes a few students to break new college ground and report back to their younger former classmates to start a trend for the next wave of applicants. We saw the same shift in 2006 with the University of Texas (not coincidentally after their Rose Bowl win over USC in what’s been called the greatest college football game of all time).

No college is right for every student, and there are lots of perfectly legitimate reasons why you might write off a potential school as being not-for-you. Effective college matchmaking means deciding which schools are left off, not just included on, your list.

But as you choose colleges to apply to, it might be worth asking yourself if any of your “deal-breakers” would change if one or more of your older classmates were currently attending and enjoying their experience. Too cold, too small, don’t like the Midwest or the South or the Northeast, no basketball team, no fraternity/sorority scene, too middle-of-nowhere, can’t handle big cities—whatever your reasons for leaving a college off, would they change if your good friend were already there and loving his or her experience?

Happy reports like those may not change your mind at all, and that’s OK. But considering whether or not such a testimonial could make a difference might help you distinguish between a genuine preference and a preconceived notion.

Perceptions can change over time. And there’s nothing wrong with embracing or even initiating a change in the college tides.

The best antidote to worry

Worry ruins college admission for too many families. All the uncertainty about what might happen with one upcoming grade, test, or admissions decision can leave some students and parents in a constant state of anxiety, almost all of which will seem overblown in retrospect when that student eventually moves into a dorm and becomes a college freshman.

Research out of the University of Chicago shows that the best way to stop worrying about what might happen tomorrow is to be grateful for what you have today. Your health, your family, your friends, your life—all of these things are more important than your SAT score or whether Northwestern says yes. If that feels true in theory but difficult to embrace in practice because you’re in the middle of this potentially stressful time, here’s an article that shares not just the research, but also a simple exercise to help you embrace gratitude as your worry antidote.

Stretch and learn

Our family’s go-to babysitter is headed to college next week, so we’re in the market for a replacement. When my wife saw a post on a parent list-serve pitching the experienced babysitting services of an incoming freshman at a local high school, she called the number listed. Turns out that number wasn’t the student’s—it was his mother’s, who also made it clear in the first two minutes that she would be doing all the vetting during this exchange.

He’s only available on these particular days and times. Can you accommodate that?

How old are your kids? He doesn’t take care of kids younger than two.

What’s the latest time you would need him to stay? I don’t like him to be out past nine.

I don’t think any of those are unreasonable positions to take. This is a 14-year-old kid, not a professional nanny. There’s nothing wrong with a 14-year-old who doesn’t even drive yet being unavailable during certain hours, preferring to work with kids of a certain age, or needing to be home by a certain time.

But is there any reason why he couldn’t speak for himself? He presumably knows his schedule. He knows the age range of the kids he feels comfortable caring for. He knows what time his parents would like him to come home. He’s got all the information necessary to take it from there.

He could have fielded that phone call. He could have answered questions and maybe thought of a few of his own to ask. He could have represented himself and shown his potential part-time employers that he’s exactly the kind of mature, responsible kid that many people look for in a babysitter.

But he didn’t get to do any of those things—his mother did them for him. What a missed opportunity, for him and for her.

I can see the argument that this is a parental judgment call. He’s not in high school yet. He’s on the step, but not yet through the door, of that transition when many kids’ capabilities surpass their dependence on Mom and Dad. Maybe this was the first phone call that came in and his mother wanted him to hear the kinds of questions she asks so he can learn to do that himself. It’s possible that he’s been allowed all sorts of opportunities to represent himself.

But no matter what the reason, I hope he’ll soon be answering his own phone calls, handling his own interviews, and learning his own lessons along the way. He won’t do it perfectly the first time. But he’ll get better with each repetition as long as he’s given the opportunity to stretch and learn.

Those kids—the ones who can think and act for themselves—are the high school students who will raise their hands in class, or call a local non-profit to inquire about volunteer opportunities, or sit comfortably and have a conversation with their college interviewer.

They later become the college students who will visit a professor during office hours, show up for the club meeting they saw advertised on a campus flyer, or seek out resources, opportunities, and mentors that are widely available for students who don’t just sit back and wait.

And yes, they become the adults who can navigate their way through life’s personal and professional complexities, where your success and happiness are driven a lot more by your work ethic, character, confidence, communication skills, and empathy than they are by your ability to follow directions and get an “A.”

Parents, as your kids progress through the teenage years, some of the most crucial lessons they can learn won’t be in the classroom, or even in their chosen activities. The teachings will come from the experiences around how they’ve chosen to spend their time. There’s a host of maturing opportunities around getting a job as a babysitter that have nothing to do with taking care of kids. Those same opportunities exist when they don’t get into a class that they want, or they run for a club office and lose the election, or they see an exciting opportunity but aren’t sure how to pursue it. That’s where life’s learning happens. And it’s important that parents let them enroll.

It’s a process, and you shouldn’t be expected to flip the independence switch one day. But just like when you teach them to drive, eventually, you’ve got to let them take the wheel for themselves. If you don’t, you’ll be driving them forever.

I think any student, no matter what their grades and test scores, can become someone who’s capable of making their way successfully. But they need their parents to step back and allow them the opportunities to stretch and learn.

Who’s it not for?

For private college counselors running your own shops, one of the keys to standing out and doing great work is deciding who you–and your expertise–isn’t for.

What kind of guidance or support can a potential customer request—and be perfectly willing to pay you for—that you’d politely decline and refer them to a competitor who’s a better fit?

I don’t mean a family who’s requesting a service that’s wildly out of your expertise, like asking you to tell them what kind of roofing to put on their house. I mean a family who wants a type of college advising that you have actively decided is not where you hang your professional hat.

Maybe a family has an athlete who’s hoping to be recruited, or a student who’s not that engaged in the college process and needs someone to light the fire, or parents who are primarily concerned about the cost of college and are hoping you can help secure financial aid and scholarships. It’s hard to imagine any counselor who could help all of those families equally well. And if you can’t do great work for a family, don’t they deserve to find someone who can? And don’t you deserve the opportunity to do your best work? Saying no gives you both that opportunity.

It’s temping when running any business to say yes to anyone who’s willing to pay you. You want to pay your bills. You want to earn a living. You want to grow your business. Why shouldn’t you say yes, especially in the early stages, if all it will mean is a little extra work and learning on your part?

But saying yes to everyone is a path to owning a business that’s just like all the others. Deciding who your work isn’t for is step one to creating a business people talk about.

Imagine the wedding photographer who says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t shoot outdoor weddings.”

Imagine the caterer who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t cater events for more than 15 people.”

Imagine the accountant who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t work on taxes for people who aren’t business owners.”

Now the photographer can focus on becoming so good at servicing the unique needs of her clients that she becomes known as the one you call when your wedding will be indoors.

The caterer can put his energies into becoming the one in town that people talk about because of the show he put on for their dinner party.

The accountant can become the one in town that small business owners talk about because she helped them make their businesses more financially sound.

Sure, you’ll still need to do great work to stand out. You’ll need to create experiences for your customers so remarkable that they can’t help but talk about you. But it’s a lot easier to do that for a smaller segment than it is to do it for everyone. And the first step towards identifying your smaller segment is to decide which members of the larger segment just shouldn’t hire you.

If you have trouble deciding, consider three things.

1. Who’s your ideal customer, the person who’s predisposed to be thrilled with what you do and how you do it?

2. Are there enough of those people to sustain your business?

3. And most importantly, what could you learn, do, and provide to that group that would make them feel like you’d created the perfect service for them, one that understood their desires, fears, and hopes for their college process?

Now, who doesn’t fit in that group?

To find the groups that will buy, appreciate, and talk about your best work, start by deciding who your service isn’t for.

What happens here, and no place else?

What if the next time you toured a college, or attended a college’s presentation at your school, or visited a college fair, you asked the school’s representative to tell you a story about something that happens at that college that would not happen anywhere else?

Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant advises that job applicants ask potential employers this question about their workplaces, and I thought it was just genius. An employer (or a college) can’t duck that question with a long list of generalities. To really answer it, they’ll need to tell you a story about something specific that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.

“You get a lot of interaction with professors here.” Not a good answer. You can get that at plenty of other schools, too.


“For 20 years at the beginning of every finals week, our Nobel Prize-winning chemistry professor has cooked breakfast for her students at her house. Her banana nut pancakes are absolutely legendary on campus. Students who aren’t even chemistry majors ask if they can attend just to taste for themselves.”

Now you’ve got something specific.

P.S. Good lesson for college essays, too.

“Show, don’t tell…”

Fans of ABC’s Shark Tank, where investment-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks), have seen this scenario play out on the show. The sharks are interested, but on the fence, questioning if there’s enough potential in this business to earn their time, money, and attention. Sensing that he or she is at risk of losing their potential deal, the entrepreneur tries to tell the sharks what sets them apart.

“I’m relentless. I will not give up.”

“You won’t find someone who works harder than I do.”

“I am passionate about this!”

I’ve seen almost every episode of Shark Tank, but I’ve never seen any of these statements alone lure a shark to make an offer.

Persistence, hard work, and passion are prerequisites for entrepreneurial success. And just because you do those things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business.

Would an NFL coach be swayed just because you claimed to practice hard?

Would a potential romantic partner be swayed just because you claimed to be a nice person?

Would a recruiter at Google or Apple be swayed just because you claimed to be passionate about technology?

In each of these cases—and on Shark Tank—showing works a lot better than telling does.

If you want to see how showing versus telling is done, scroll to 3:50 of this Shark Tank clip and watch entrepreneur Nathan Holzapfel. In just 20 seconds, he gets the sharks interested, not by telling them that he works hard and he cares and he keeps going, but by actually showing them. 20 seconds is all it takes for him to get billionaire investor Mark Cuban to belt out, “I love you—I LOVE you!”

When you’re writing your college essays, don’t just tell colleges that you’re resilient or hard-working or passionate. Show them.

And if you’re working your way through high school, remember that the best way to be successful and to get into college is to put your natural strengths to the best use so you have something to show for them.