Search Results for: potential

Beware of application creep

“Feature creep” is continually adding new features to a product in the hopes of improving it and appealing to more customers, but ultimately resulting in something complicated and difficult to use, often impairing its ability to do what it was originally designed to do. That software program that forced you to upgrade, where the new version has bells and whistles that you didn’t want, didn’t need, and just don’t like? That’s feature creep, and it’s ruined a lot of previously good products.

Some applicants—and just as often, their parents—fall prey to application creep, especially in November as deadlines are inching closer. Why not add a few more colleges to this list, just to be safe? Why not send this extra letter of recommendation the college didn’t ask for, just in case it helps? Why not have just one more person give us feedback on the essay, if their suggestions could make a difference? A little more, a few more tweaks, one or two more suggestions implemented—eventually, you stop improving your application. And you start impairing its ability to do what it was designed to do.

Your application, with its accompanying parts like essays and letters of rec, is a product. It deserves enough time and attention to make it as strong as possible. But like feature creep, all those additions done in the hopes of making your product better eventually start to chip away at something that was previously good.

Those additional college applications mean more work for the student, the rec writers and the counselor (all of which chips away at the quality of your other applications). That extra letter of recommendation just chips away at the admissions officer’s patience and attention span. That one additional source of essay feedback just chips away at whatever is left of the student’s voice in the essay, leaving something that reads as if it was written by a committee (because now it has been!).

The best products do what they’re designed to do for the people they’re designed to do it for. They don’t try to please every potential customer, and they don’t implement every suggestion. Your college application is designed to help each particular college evaluate you as an applicant. The admissions office has spent months refining this particular product to do what it is designed to do, for exactly who it was designed to do it for. Help that product do its job.

Follow the directions. Use the space and the prompts to clearly and proudly tell the college who you are and what you’ve done. Take the time to do your best work on the applications for those colleges that really interest you. Don’t fire off last minute additional applications to schools you know nothing about. Don’t send unsolicited materials. Don’t get third and fourth and sixth opinions on your essays. Instead, focus your time and attention on helping each product do the job it was designed to do.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes, but your counselor is the best judge of those exceptions, not your friend, neighbor, or anyone else who doesn’t work in the college admissions field.

Don’t assume that more applications, more input, or more features will make your application better. These products work very well already, especially when you take the time to use them properly.

Leave bigger shoes to fill

Many high school students began this year in leadership positions—editor of the yearbook, president of the student body, captain of the football team, etc. You should be proud that you earned the trust and respect of those who put you in charge. But it’s also important to remember that getting the position is just half of your leadership story that colleges will want to know about. The other half will be what you do in that role.

If your version of leading is to hold meetings and do the same things in the same ways that the leader before you did them, that’s not a compelling story. Leaders see potential and help others see it, too. At the end of your tenure, you and your members should be able to look back proudly and fondly at what you accomplished together. And that should challenge the next leader to do the same.

If you’re committed to leaning into your leadership role, here are a few questions to consider. Think about them, and pose them to those you work with if you’d like.

1. Who are your customers?
Every organization serves someone. The student government exists to serve their fellow students. The Gay/Straight Alliance exists to serve LGBT students and their allies. And plenty of organizations exist to serve their own members in part or in full, like the baseball team, the Improv Club, or the Math Team. But your organization needs to know who it’s serving, and your leadership needs to be clear about it. Then you can chart your path and make decisions from the frame of “How will this be good for those we serve?”

2. What would a successful stint look like?
People like to work together towards a common vision of success. The leadership team needs to paint that picture. If your group did a fantastic job this year, what would that look like? How would you measure it? Number of wins? Total funds raised? Members recruited? Initiatives successfully completed? If you think this doesn’t apply to your group, then ask the reverse question—what would a terrible year look like? If you run the DJ Club and can’t picture what success looks like, it’s pretty easy to figure out what failure looks like—unhappy members, people quit, the club needs to disband, etc. Then get to work defining the opposite of that vision—happy members, more people attending meetings, a flourishing club that’s established and appreciated on campus, etc.

3. What will you do today?
Vivid portrayals of future success are inspiring, but they can also be fleeting. If you don’t make immediate progress, the inspiration fades. The vision becomes all talk. And the goals start to seem unreachable. So once your group agrees on what you want to accomplish tomorrow, decide what you’re going to do today to start marching toward that goal. Maybe you need to recruit more members, or start pre-season conditioning workouts, or focus your rehearsal efforts to prepare for the upcoming school talent show. Today’s actions lead to tomorrow’s goals. And the lift you’ll get from those mini accomplishments along the way will keep you and your organization striving.

Your goal as a leader? Help others see the potential for things to be better, happier, more fun, safer, etc. for those you serve. Channel that enthusiasm into actions you can take today. If you do it right, not everything you try will work (that’s an inherent risk of trying new things). But you’ll almost certainly leave bigger shoes to fill at the end of your leadership stint.

For more on leading, managing, and why the two are not the same, check out Marcus Buckingham’s book, The One Thing You Need to Know.

Paying for college: a primer

The idea of trying to pay for college can be intimidating. The potentially big bills and the seemingly complex system of applying for financial aid and scholarships can be enough to stop some families from taking the productive steps they need to take to help finance their children’s educations. So here’s my primer on the topic. Each of these five recommendations are important, and they’ll take time and some focus to execute properly. But I’ve distilled them into this short list to help readers see that it’s not a 100-item to-do list. A family who, along with their applicant, does just these five things will almost certainly be in a much better financial position to pay for college.

1. Start saving for college as soon as possible, preferably in a 529 savings plan.
The more you manage to save, the less you’ll need to rely on financial aid. And the more control you’ll have in your college destiny.

2. Become a competitive applicant.
A challenging curriculum combined with good grades and test scores can earn you more financial aid, which brings me to…

3. Apply to schools where you have a strong chance of admission, ideally those where you’d be in the top 10% of the class of incoming freshmen.
One of the best ways to get the money you need is to apply to those colleges most likely to pay. Financial aid offices earmark a certain percentage of money every year just to lure academically appealing students. Apply where you’ll appeal.

4. File the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
The FAFSA is the starting point to apply for financial aid at any college. Some colleges also require additional forms, and those will always be explained on the financial aid section of each college’s website. But failing to file the FAFSA will take you out of the running for most available aid.

5. Apply for outside scholarships.
These are awards from private companies, foundations, community organizations, churches and other benefactors. I intentionally listed this last because while many families believe that scholarships are the best way to pay for college, these awards actually account for about 5% of the aid that’s available. Landing comparatively small awards of a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand, dollars is worth it, especially if paying for college is a big concern. But don’t ignore the other items on the list and hope that scholarships will cover the cost.

On self-deprecation

Despite the fact that Five underutilized ways to give yourself an advantage with your college essay doesn’t seem like an accurate title for Jay Mathews’ recent post (only the first two tips have to do with essays), this first tidbit is worth considering.

1. At least once in any essay, make fun of yourself. It’s called self-deprecation. It should be (but is not) taught in every essay-writing and speechmaking class. When my daughter Katie’s first-choice college asked her to tell it something not on her application, she wrote about her friend’s label for her: the human jukebox. She could identify songs by just the first three or four notes. She told the college, “The happiest place in the world for me is inside my car singing (badly) to pop music.” That’s self-deprecation. You can slip some into whatever you have already written. If it’s about your volunteer hospital work, describe a clumsy moment. Did you mix up a patient’s urine sample with his apple juice? That tells the college you are not just smart but enjoyable to have around.

I’d offer just one potential revision to that advice.

Self-deprecation works when it’s true, and some stories don’t necessarily involve a mistake, an embarrassing moment, a less-than-perfect showing, etc. Tell the whole truth. Don’t polish out every bit of reality to the point that you’re presenting yourself as perfect (you’re not—none of us are, including the people reading your application). But don’t feel like you necessarily have to wedge it into every story.

Should you take a gap year?

Gap years have gotten a lot of press since Malia Obama announced she’ll be taking a year off before heading to Harvard. For the uninitiated, a gap year is planned time off—usually one year—before attending college. It can be an appealing option for students who intend to work, travel, or otherwise engage in something they likely couldn’t do while concurrently attending college, or for students who feel too burned out and want to refuel their intellectual and emotional gas tanks before starting their college careers.

Not surprisingly, that widespread coverage of the gap year option has led a lot of applicants to explore the option, or to flat out ask their counselor, “Should I take a gap year?”

The gap year is a wonderful option for some students. But it’s also an important and potentially complex enough decision that I shouldn’t try to dispense advice in a blog post to help you decide whether or not a gap year is for you.

So instead, I’ll just encourage you to do one thing—apply to college first, then make the decision later about whether or not to take the gap year.

Here are three reasons I recommend that approach:

1. If you choose not to apply to college because you intend to take a gap year, all of your options are now pretty much off the table. You can’t change your mind next spring (or if you do, you’ll have limited options). And I’d hate to see any student begin their gap year already wishing they’d made a different choice. Why remove options prematurely if you don’t have to?

2. If a college that admitted you agrees to hold your spot for another year, you’re all set on the college front. You won’t have to apply next fall, you won’t have to keep your fingers crossed that you’ll get in, and most importantly, you won’t have to explain what you’ve been up to for that last year in a way that makes you a compelling admit. I’m not suggesting that you should then embrace the opportunity to do nothing but watch television and eat frozen burritos. But why put unnecessary pressure on yourself? A waiting spot means you can direct your energy into deciding what to do for the next year without worrying about what will happen next.

3. When people ask you where you’re going to college, it will feel better to say, “I’m going to College X, but I’m taking a gap year first,” as opposed to, “I’m taking a year off and then applying.” The former is a student who’s embracing options and the freedom to do something interesting or necessary before beginning college. The latter is a student who could appear a little aimless. I don’t typically suggest that students make decisions based on what other people might think—you need to do what’s right for you and your family. But I know that there’s a very real psychological difference between having a college plan in place and waiting another year to find one.

Any student who decides to take a gap year deserves to get what they want out of the experience, without regrets or added pressure. In most cases, applying to college first, then ensuring that a school will hold your spot for a year, will help you get what you want from your gap year experience.

Three egregious FAFSA mistakes

Today, October 1, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) goes live. Here are the three most egregious FAFSA mistakes a family can make, all which are easy to avoid.

1. Not filing the form.
Every family with a student applying to college should file a FAFSA unless you (1) can painlessly write a check to cover the full cost of attendance for college next year, and (2) can somehow be absolutely certain that nothing in the future (job loss, unexpected medical costs, the decision to attend a more expensive college, etc.) will change your ability to fulfill #1.

2. Filing the form too late.
Please don’t procrastinate or wait to see where you’re admitted to file the FAFSA. Need-based financial aid is often offered on a first-come, first-served basis. There’s no need to cancel all of your weekend plans and pull sequential all-nighters to submit this form in the next 24-48 hours. But this is also not the kind of thing you want to wait to address until the impending deadline spurs you to action. You may not enjoy completing forms like this one (I certainly don’t). But you’ll enjoy the feeling of knowing you’ve filed a completed FAFSA in plenty of time to avail yourself of aid.

3. Paying to file the form.
If you type “FAFSA” into a search engine, you’ll find several sites that look deceptively like the actual FAFSA but actually charge you for access. Don’t fall for it. There’s only one legitimate FAFSA form, and you should never pay to file it (the “F” in FAFSA stands for “Free!”). Just access the correct form by visiting directly.

It’s rare that mistakes can be so potentially costly and simultaneously so easy to avoid. So now, I have a favor to ask. Please forward this post to someone with a college applicant in the house. You could potentially be doing them a huge financial favor at no cost to you.

When good for you is bad for others

I’ve written often here that I think quitting gets a bad rap, especially in high school. Not all quitting is good, but successful people quit things all the time. They’re just strategic about what and when they do it. That’s why I’ve never heard a college say that they would prefer that students plod through an activity they can no longer stand just to prove that they don’t quit.

But there’s one important quitting consideration I hadn’t thought of as it pertains to high school students. Are you breaking a commitment that you’ve made, and if so, will this negatively affect other people?

If you committed to a team, job, role, position, etc., what would happen to those people if you were to leave? Will the volleyball team be without its starting setter? Will your boss now have nobody to cover your shifts? Will the student council be without a treasurer? There’s a reason they call it honoring a commitment, and while I do advocate good quitting as a way to keep yourself engaged and happy, you don’t want what’s good for you to be bad for other people unless it’s absolutely unavoidable.

If you’re considering ending a commitment before its natural conclusion, here are a few things to consider to help you make that transition responsibly. No college admissions officer I’ve met would want you to stay in something that makes you miserable, but they’d also like to see that you appreciate the gravity of a commitment even when it’s no longer paying you back.

1. Talk to someone in charge.
Instead of just up-and-leaving one day, start by talking to your coach, boss, advisor, etc. Make it clear that you’re considering doing something else, but more importantly, be honest about your reasons. Sometimes it feels better to get things out in the open, and it’s possible that the person in charge might help you find a way to help you reengage happily. But even if that doesn’t happen, having the potentially difficult conversation is the right thing to do—and you’ll get credit for being responsible and mature enough to bring it up before you walk out.

2. Ask how you can best leave with minimal disruption.
If it’s clear that it’s time for you to go, ask the person in charge how you could best leave with minimal negative effects on the team, group, co-workers, etc. Maybe you can stay another couple weeks until they find a replacement? Maybe you can take the time to teach someone else how to do what you’ve been doing? Maybe you can finish your current project before you depart? Just asking the question shows that you’re honoring your commitment. And if you help make the departure as smooth as possible, you’ll probably end up leaving on good terms. Which brings me to…

3. Commit to being a part of the transition.
One smart way to leave a commitment behind is to make a new commitment to help with the transition. Offer to help find a replacement. Train the new person. Write down everything you’ve been doing and how you’re doing it so the replacement can get up to speed fast. I write often about leaving behind a legacy. And helping with a transition will change a legacy that could have been “She left us when we needed her” to “She made sure we were okay before she left.”

These steps won’t necessarily apply to every scenario. Sometimes, circumstances dictate that you have to end a commitment immediately whether or not you’d like to. But as much as I encourage high school students to commit to activities that make them happy and to leave behind those that don’t, once you make those commitments, think twice before you do something that’s as bad for others as it will be good for you.

We’re hiring community organizers

Two years ago, in the communities where Collegewise operates offices, we began hiring community organizers—local parents to help more people learn about what Collegewise does and why we do it.  Responsible experimentation is good in business, but we still had some initial reluctance. We didn’t want to do anything that would ask people to put their personal or professional relationships at risk, or to create an arrangement that resembled the college counseling version of a pyramid scheme. But especially in areas where we were opening new offices, we felt a bit like the new kid in school. And we wanted to find the grown-up versions of the well-connected student who could introduce the newcomer around a little bit.

That experiment succeeded. We partnered with over a dozen parents, some who were readers of my blog, some who had seen us speak at their high schools, and several who had put their own kids through our programs. Their common thread was that they believed in the Collegewise approach of making college admissions less stressful and more enjoyable for families, so much so that they wanted to help spread the word. Now, we’re looking to expand that program and are officially taking applications.  All of the details are below. If your interest is piqued, I hope you’ll consider applying. And if you know someone who might be a good fit, I’d appreciate it if you would forward this post to them.

Wanted: Community Organizers

  • Are you a parent who believes there is too much anxiety surrounding the college admissions process?
  • Can you organize and lead people who care about the same things you care about?
  • Would you like to make a difference in your high school and community by helping families enjoy their journey to college rather than suffer through it?

If so, you might be interested in partnering with your local Collegewise office as a community organizer.

We’re currently hiring in:


  • Anaheim
  • Conejo Valley
  • East Bay/Oakland
  • Irvine
  • Los Angeles
  • Mill Valley
  • Napa
  • Palo Alto
  • Redondo Beach
  • San Francisco South Bay


  • Rockville


  • Newton

New Jersey

  • Closter
  • Millburn
  • Princeton

New York

  • New York

North Carolina

  • Chapel Hill
  • Raleigh


  • Austin
  • San Antonio


  • Bellevue

More about us
Collegewise is a rapidly growing college counseling company trying to change college admissions. We do college counseling a little differently here. Our goal isn’t necessarily to get every kid who works with us into an Ivy League school. Instead, our college counselors show families just how many wonderful colleges there are, helping our families apply and get accepted to schools they’re excited to attend. We do it all with just the right mix of advice, encouragement, and occasional cheerleading to make the process exciting and enjoyable. Not everyone agrees with the way we approach the college admissions process. So our offices need part-time community organizers who can connect us with families, schools, and local organizations who believe what we believe and might want to learn from us.

Here’s who we’re looking for
You’re the parent at school who makes things happen. Whether it’s a fundraiser for the hockey team or finding the chaperones for the junior prom, when something needs to get done, you don’t just volunteer—you jump in and bring others with you. You’re not afraid to speak up or to take charge. And when you find a service that does a great job for you, you speak up and tell your friends, “You need someone? I’ve got somebody!” Your kids may feign teenage embarrassment about Mom or Dad’s commitment to their school and their education, but deep down they know you’re the good example of a parent who cares and wants to be involved.

If you were working for us, here are some of the things you might have done in the last month:

  • Hosted a meeting at your home where our counselor takes college admissions questions from a dozen of your friends and their kids.
  • Spoken to your school’s PTA president to schedule Collegewise to speak at their next meeting.
  • Referred three of your friends to Collegewise, and coordinated with our counselor to schedule their introductory meetings.
  • Organized a special presentation for our counselor to present to your student’s water polo team, National Charity League, or AssisTeens group.
  • Contacted your local library, church, synagogue, mosque, etc. to inquire about potential free workshops we could organize for their members.
  • Announced our upcoming free seminars to your fellow parents (by email, Facebook, Twitter, text—whatever works for you!).

It’s about trust, not sales
This isn’t a sales position that’s all about the numbers. Yes, we need people to enroll in order for our offices to succeed, and we want you to help us do that. But short-term sales pressure doesn’t create long-term trust in our communities. Whether you connect us with families you know, organizations who want us to speak, or schools who will share our books and guidelines with their faculty, we need you to put us with people who would love and benefit from our approach.

Community organizers earn:

  • A 10% commission for families they personally refer who enroll with us
  • $150 for every speaking engagement they help us secure
  • A 5% commission on enrollments that come from those speaking engagements

Community organizers work remotely (no need to come to our office), set their own hours, and can dedicate as much or as little time as they’d like.

How to apply
First, get to know us a little by looking around our website. If you like what you read and think you may be able to find a part-time professional home here, send an email to with the subject [Community Organizer]. Tell us where you live (you need to be in the same community as one of our offices), why you want to work at Collegewise, and anything else you think will help you stand out. Share specific examples of how you’ve organized, led, or otherwise made an impact in your school and community (that’s much more compelling than, “I know everyone!”). We love personality here, so don’t be afraid to be yourself—smart, thoughtful, or maybe even funny. Just don’t be generic.

We’re looking for people to start as soon as possible. If you have questions about the job, please email us at the above address rather than call us. We promise to respond to you quickly.

Thanks for reading my post. We’d love to hear from you, but if we don’t, I hope you find the perfect professional fit someplace else.

Last call for our Common App webinar

There are plenty of potential reasons why a college applicant might consider attending our upcoming webinar, Making your Common App Less Common, featuring our Vice-President and Head of Counseling, Arun Ponnusamy. Maybe you have questions about which essay topic to choose. Maybe you’re struggling with the activity section. Or maybe you just want to learn from an expert to make sure you’re putting your best application foot forward.

But there are times when a presenter is so knowledgeable, so generous with their information and advice, and just so good at what they do that I will personally attend no matter what the topic. Arun is one of those speakers. I’ve watched or co-presented with him dozens of times over the last 12 years, and I always learn something when I do. That’s why I’m not just recommending the webinar; I’ll also be in the audience myself tonight.

It’s taking place tonight, September 13, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. PDT. The cost to attend is $10, and you can get all the information here.

I hope you’ll be able to join us.

How to be a parental superhero

My mom still remembers the day she found my brother’s housing application to UC Berkeley sitting on the floor of his bedroom.

It was due in three hours.

In the days before the internet (and with my brother somewhere on the water with his crew team), she saw just one option—make the two-hour round trip drive to Berkeley to personally deliver the application for him.

When she told him later that night what she’d done for him, his chagrined, remorseful response said it all: “I’m sorry, Mom.”

Readers of this blog know how often I preach against helicopter parenting where parents are constantly hovering to play equal parts manager, publicist, and personal assistant for their kids. I write often that parents need to train their high school kids for the independence of adult life, and that good parenting should involve a taper period before college when you progressively do less and less for your kids.

But like so many parts of parenting, I recognize (even more so now that I’m a parent myself) that this is often easier said than done, and that not every situation—or every kid—presents with a clear right or wrong course of parenting action.

When the infamous housing application snafu took place, my brother was ranked #1 in his high school class. He rose every morning at 5:30 a.m., took our school’s most demanding course curriculum, rowed for a state championship crew, and routinely stayed up until past midnight to maintain his perfect GPA. This was not a kid whose mother was running his life for him; this was a kid who was totally self-driven, who’d achieved because of his own ambitions, and in the throes of school and sports and college applications, managed to let one item of paperwork get past him.

Had my mom not swooped in and saved the day, what lesson would she have taught him? That one mistake among all that perfection should cost him the chance to live in a dorm as a freshman?

NoDropOffsI recalled this tale from our family lore this week when I read about an all-boys private school in Little Rock that does not allow parents to drop off their kids’ forgotten homework, lunches, and other items mistakenly left behind. Principal Steve Straessle is serious about the policy, as evidenced by the sign placed at the front of the school.

Not surprisingly, the article and the subsequent social media sharing stirred plenty of parental debate in the comments sections, ranging from those who praised the policy to those who found it bordering on abuse.

I don’t take issue with the policy, and I suspect that it actually rankles (and teaches!) the parents far more than it does the kids. Teens are resilient—they won’t experience long-term trauma going one day without a lunch or a lacrosse stick that they left behind.

But I do understand how some parents might feel when they reach the school and see that sign. What if your student doesn’t eat breakfast and will now go to school, then to football practice, without a single morsel of food? Yes, he’ll be fine and this is far from a tragic circumstance. But I understand why his parent might be uneasy.

What if that homework assignment left behind is the difference between a B+ and the A- he’s been working so hard for all semester?

And most importantly, what if the item left behind is not a symptom of a chronic problem, but a rare dropped ball in an increasingly frenzied, pressure-packed life of a motivated, hardworking, good kid?

I think that last question is the key for parents facing the choice of saving the day or letting their student learn his or her lesson.

Are you lending a rare assist to a student with a demonstrated history of independence, a student who’s proven that he’s responsible and ready for college but, like all of us, might occasionally miss something on his ever-increasing to-do list?

Or have these assists become a routine part of what is now daily management, something that you’ve unintentionally taught your student to expect as part of Mom or Dad’s role as a parent?

If you’re in the first camp, rest easy. You’re a good parent who cares enough to step in (and then step right back out) occasionally.

But if you’re in the second camp, I think it’s worth facing some tough facts that you might be offering (or simply forcing) too much assistance, and that your student might be too dependent on you. You’re not a bad person or a bad parent. But you’re also not helping your student learn to navigate his own life. If he doesn’t start learning that lesson before he goes to college, the transition to not having Mom or Dad there to take care of everything will be far more difficult, stressful, and potentially messy.

Superheroes swoop in to occasionally save the day when nobody else can help someone in need. They don’t hover constantly to prevent people from facing any challenge at all.

P.S. Today, my brother is a graduate of Harvard. And my mother no longer hand delivers important documents for him.