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A few reminders if bad news arrives

I hope that seniors and their families who read this blog are receiving plenty of good admissions news these days. But if bad news arrives, here are a few past posts that might help you bounce back just a little faster.

How to handle college rejections  

Treat rejections like break-ups

Should you appeal a college rejection?

And here’s another reminder: Some students, but more often parents, will react badly enough to the news that they call the admissions office to yell at somebody. Please don’t do that. The person who fields your call will almost certainly be a receptionist who had nothing to do with your admissions decision (most people who call to yell direct it at whoever answers the phone). But more importantly, yelling at someone isn’t going to change the outcome. It’s not going to make you feel better. You’ll almost certainly regret it later. And most importantly for parents, it sets a terrible example for your kids.

I know that it hurts when a school you (or your student) really wanted to attend says no. It can feel bitterly personal, callous, and unfair. But it’s also an opportunity–an opportunity to seize another college option, to model the kind of productive and resilient behavior that successful people exhibit when things don’t go their way, and most importantly, to become one of those families who doesn’t allow an admissions decision from one college to validate their student’s worth or potential. You can do that for yourself, whatever answer arrives.

Should you invite anonymous feedback?

I had a great conversation with a Collegewise employee yesterday about the potential value of anonymous feedback at work. If we provided a forum to invite our employees to share feedback without requiring them to attach a name to their thoughts, would that give a voice to people who might otherwise be reluctant to share their opinions? There are a lot of legitimate reasons why there might be benefits to gain, but here are five reasons I came away believing that anonymous feedback is a bad idea for us, for most organizations, and even for high school students.

1. It sends a message that it’s not safe to speak up.

Sure, you can pitch anonymous feedback as the opportunity to speak up without fear of consequences. But it also reinforces the notion that this is a place that might take punitive measures with someone who dared to share an opinion. Once you instill that fear, it’s hard to remove it. And while there may be some places where fear brings out the best in some people, work is rarely if ever one of them.

2. It absolves the submitter of all responsibility.

When you sign your name to your opinions, you assume responsibility for what you say and how you say it. Is your feedback clear? Is it thoughtful? Does it come from a good place of wanting to help or otherwise make things better? Anonymous feedback makes that responsibility optional, but not required. And that can bring out the worst in people. Look no further than the anonymous comments on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. If you want someone to treat your feedback with respect and to take responsibility for acting on it in some way, show them respect—and assume your own responsibility—at the onset by including your name with your thoughts.

3. It chips away at trust.

When feedback comes in the form of criticism, no matter how constructive, the receiver can’t help think, “I wonder who said that?” Then people start making unfounded guesses about the source. They start looking at their colleagues with suspicion instead of trust. The gossip starts to spin about who might have said what about whom. That feels an awful lot like the parts of junior high that we all hated so much. And nobody wants their work environment to feel that way.

4. Anonymity makes the feedback difficult if not impossible to act on.

One of the most important things any organization can do is respond to feedback from its constituents. Sometimes that response is to do exactly what was suggested. Sometimes it’s to reach out to the submitter and learn more. Other times it’s to make the person feel heard, but explain why you can’t or have decided not to act at this time. We don’t always get that action right at Collegewise, but we’re always trying to get better at it. When the feedback is anonymous, it’s much harder to take any productive action at all. And no action eventually leads to no more useful feedback.

5. It robs the submitter of a great opportunity.

People who share thoughtful, respectful feedback are demonstrating engagement. They’re showing that they care enough about the person, the cause, or the organization to raise their hand, share an opinion, and stand by those thoughts. They can then participate in the ensuing discussion or even lead the charge to make change. Over time, that person can establish a reputation as a high impact player, someone who makes things happen for the organization. Even a high school student can do this if they share useful feedback with their organizations, their teachers, or their school, then follow that feedback with a pledge to be a part of whatever happens on the other side. I can’t imagine a college that wouldn’t appreciate a student who engaged in this way, always coming from a place of wanting to make things better not just for themselves, but for everyone involved.

Stop brainstorming, start brainwriting

From Inc.’s This Renowned Wharton Professor’s Best Leadership Advice: For the Love of God, Stop Brainstormingfeaturing renowned professor Adam Grant:

With 50 years of research available, leaders should be familiar with the perils of groupthink. When people go along to get along, originality suffers, potential threats are brushed aside, and disastrous decisions result. More effective, Grant says, is a process called “brainwriting,” in which everyone generates ideas on his or her own. Only once everything is on the table does the group evaluate it. “The wisdom of crowds mostly comes when you put people in separate rooms and get their judgment independently,” he says.

Something to consider the next time your club, organization, or department considers calling a meeting to brainstorm.

Parent/student roles

Parents, as college decisions arrive for your applicant in the house, eliciting everything from jubilation to (temporary) despair, the single most important thing I can remind you is this:

It’s not happening to you. It’s happening to your student.

You may feel thrilled, upset, angry, confused, frustrated, etc. on their behalf. That’s completely normal considering you’ve spent the last 18 years raising this young person. And I would never recommend that a parent disengage or present as if they’re unaffected by any of the news.

But please remember your job during this potentially stressful time is to be the parent of a college applicant. To do that job effectively requires that you distinguish between two very different roles—the parent and the applicant.

To play your role well, you have to let your student play theirs.

Actions lead to answers

Collegewise is getting ready to roll out some new offerings within our programs. Not new services—we’re still doing all college counseling, all the time. But we’ll be adding new versions of how many hours people can buy with a counselor, how many applications we’ll assist with, and how much total time a customer will spend engaging with us. One issue of debate which has taken a surprising amount of time has been what to name each of these new suites of services.

When asked to weigh in, my feedback was:

  • Don’t pick something confusing.
  • Don’t pick something our counselors or our particular customers will feel silly saying out loud.
  • Don’t worry too much about this—we can always change it if it doesn’t work.
  • And most importantly, don’t assume that we know the answer.

The truth is that we won’t know anything until we put the new offerings with the new names in front of potential customers. They get to decide with their conversations and their pocketbooks.

Will they even care what the names are? Will they be confused by them? Will the names change their likelihood of buying or telling a friend about what they’ve bought? Will this help or hurt our business? Will any of this matter at all?

We can debate all we want to. We could ask people in our lives or hire a firm to set up focus groups. And none of it would be anywhere near as useful as just testing it and seeing what the decider—the customer—does.

When you’re inside your own business, school, organization, etc., it’s almost impossible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes who’s outside of it. Rather than guessing, debating, focus-grouping or otherwise trying to predict what those outsiders will do, just make the choice. Then let them tell you through their decisions whether you made the right call.

Their actions will point you towards the right answer.

Perspective power

Nate was an early Collegewise student of mine who had remarkable talent and passion for music. I remember when he brought a CD (it was 2002) to one of our meetings so I could hear an original song he’d written. It sounded great, and when I asked him about the band on the recording, he modestly revealed that he’d played all the instruments—both guitars, the bass, and the drums—himself, and then mixed them together into a fluid recording. We got back to researching appropriate colleges with music programs. He was a smart, nice, interesting kid. And I’d really been enjoying working with him.

But after one of our meetings, he and his family stopped returning my phone calls. Almost two months later, his mother finally called me back. I still remember her exact words because they hit me so hard.

I’m so sorry we haven’t been in touch. I just wanted to be honest and tell you what’s been going on in our family. We learned that Nate has a pretty serious substance abuse problem, so we’ve pulled him out of school to get him the help he needs. I don’t know how this is all going to turn out, but it might be awhile before we can focus on college for him again.

She was so calm, measured, and genuinely concerned about her son. The college planning didn’t matter for the time being. Nate’s life was a lot more important than his GPA.

Not more than an hour later, another parent called me in tears because her son’s SAT scores hadn’t risen as high after his tutoring program as they’d hoped. She wanted to discuss what “could be done to fix this.”

I’m not marginalizing her reaction to her son’s scores, especially given her money and his time that they’d invested (though disappointment was probably a more appropriate reaction than tears). But I remember thinking about the power of perspective, and that while both parents were just wanting what was best for their kids, one had a lot more to realistically worry about than the other did.

The college admissions process can chip away at even the calmest, sanest parent’s perspective. When fellow parents around you seem so concerned about grades and test scores and candidacy for prestigious colleges, you can almost feel negligent as a parent if you don’t engage at the same level so many other parents seem to be lured to do.

But when you feel that pressure getting to you, take a step back and ask yourself some honest questions. Is this a problem worth worrying about? Is there a potential outcome that could cause your student legitimate long-term damage to their health or happiness? Will this issue really matter in 10 years, in 10 months, or even in 10 days?

I’ve never heard a parent of a grown adult say that everything would have been different if their son or daughter had just gotten into AP Bio or raised their ACT score or been accepted to Brown back in high school. Perspective can save your college admissions process, and your parental sanity.

This week, I heard from Nate. He didn’t go on to college, but today he’s happy, sober, and succeeding in his career. He also sent me a photo of his infant son…perched atop Dad’s guitar.

Parents, no matter what happens during your college planning, please maintain your perspective. Your child’s future is everything, but their future college is not.

Greatest hits: college interview edition

For seniors who will soon be meeting with college interviewers, here are five past posts to help you prepare, feel more relaxed, and make a good impression.

  1. Five ways to make a great impression on college interviewers.
  2. What should you wear?
  3. How to handle pre-interview panic.
  4. Five questions you should be ready to answer.
  5. Five potential questions to ask your interviewer.

And here’s a bonus tip from Jay Matthews of the Washington Post: Pretend your interviewer is Grandma’s friend.

Should learning embrace kids’ mistakes?

The Greater Good Science Center based at UC Berkeley sponsors scientific research into social and emotional well-being, and helps educators, families, and leaders apply the findings to their own lives. Their recent piece, Why We Should Embrace Mistakes in School, shares some compelling findings showing that the best way to set students up for long-term learning and success is not to praise their ability to get the right answer, but to acknowledge and even praise their mistakes along the way.

The notion of somehow rewarding failure can be difficult for many parents and students to embrace, especially when you’re immersed in a college-bound culture that often feels like anything short of perfection somehow falls short.

But if you read the findings with an open mind, you’ll see that the recommendations actually help raise—not lower—expectations, aspirations, and potential. And when kids learn to see the value in the effort over the outcome, they’re better prepared to attack scenarios that don’t have a right answer, and better positioned for a world where there is no such thing as straight A’s in life.

Recruiting vs. hiring at Collegewise

When I ask my colleagues what they like most about working at Collegewise, most of us agree that it’s the people.  We love looking around the room at our annual retreat and being reminded once again just how many amazing folks are here that we’re proud to call coworkers. Why do so many great people, most of whom likely had plenty of other employment options, end up here? The truth is that while there is no substitute for creating a great place to work that’s worthy of great people joining it, the way we treat the process of finding and securing an employee sets a tone that draws in the kind of people who thrive here and repels those who just won’t. The best way to describe our secret is that we don’t actually hire people. We recruit people.

Hiring vs. recruiting
Hiring is a means to an end. Hiring says, “We have an open position, we need to fill it quickly, so let’s find someone who needs a job and seems like they can do this one.” Hiring is faster and easier than recruiting. You can run a help wanted ad that reads like all the others. You can post it in as many places as possible. You can make it easy to apply—just send us your existing resume and cover letter; no need to do any extra work to be considered. You can churn all those people through a formulaic process that treats applicants like numbers.

If your goal is to fill open spots quickly with people who need a job and have the skills to do this one, hiring works! But you don’t build the kind of remarkable team we’ve assembled here by hiring. To do that, you have to recruit.

Recruiting is a thoughtful, slow, and deliberate effort to find the very best person for each role.

Recruiting doesn’t just look for someone who can do the job—it also looks for the right attitude and fit. Recruiting requires that someone invest their own time, thought, and energy to apply. It weeds out people who are interested in a job more than they are in this job. Recruiting can get the right person to stop what they’re doing today and come join us.

Recruiting also recognizes that a candidate isn’t just evaluating the potential job that waits on the other side; they’re also evaluating the company they’d potentially be working for. So recruiting demands that we treat every interaction as if we’re on stage.

How do our employment ads read? How do we communicate with people once they’ve applied? How do we interact with them during the interview process? How do we treat them when we make a decision? Do we leave those that we offer a job feeling like they’ve found a home? Do we leave those that we didn’t offer a job feeling like we’re a good company who treated them with respect? Hiring doesn’t care about any of those things. But recruiting does.

The price of recruiting is that it takes more effort, more energy, and more time. It also means that we’ll pass on good but not great people, and positions can go unfilled longer than we’d like them to. But the patience almost always pays off with hires who thrive at Collegewise.

Is it worth it?
The stakes are very high when you offer someone a job. When you make a bad hire, it doesn’t just affect you. It affects your team, it affects the trainers, it affects the managers, it affects the customers, it affects the coworkers, it affects the company, and it affects the person you hired. That’s a hefty long-term price that a lot of people have to pay.

But if we take the time to find, attract, and invest in the very best people, then we’ll end up with a larger version of the team we have now—a group of a passionate, talented, remarkable folks who are enrolled in the journey we’re on together. It’s a lot harder to recruit, but a lot more likely we’ll build something even more extraordinary if we do.

If you’re in a hurry to assemble a group of people who can do the work, then you should hire. But you won’t attract remarkable people with an unremarkable process. Hiring gets faster short-term results, but recruiting gets more remarkable long-term results.

Care to join us?
This January, we’ll be in recruiting mode again and looking to add great new additions to our work family in a variety of roles. If you’d like us to reach out and tell you when those positions are officially posted, first, take a look at what life at Collegewise looks like. And if that piques your interest, just fill out this short form. We’ll send you an email in early January with a link where you can view our open positions and apply if you choose. I hope we’ll hear from you.

Not so lonely at the top

Last Friday, I posted “How you score with people” to remind high school students that the relentless measurement and reward of individual achievement so embedded in the college admissions process isn’t necessarily reflective of what it takes to be successful in the real world. What prompted that post in the first place—and the larger message that I couldn’t fit neatly into that single post—is the growing body of evidence that the people who seem to have  long-term success are those who find a way to help the people around them succeed, too.

Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant lays out a convincing argument in Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Here are two past posts on the book, here and here, and a New York Times story featuring Grant’s work, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

I just finished a preview copy of Harvard psychology researcher Shawn Achor’s Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being. The book’s key message is that while competition and individual achievement leave you disconnected and short of your full potential, connecting with, relating to, and learning from other people leads to long-term success and happiness.

And naysayers who are reluctant to take their eyes off the individual prize might be interested in last weekend’s New York Times opinion piece about the “Shalene Flanagan Effect.” The first American woman to win the New York Marathon in over 40 years, Flanagan has also nurtured and encouraged the growing talent around her with remarkable results—every one of her 11 training partners has qualified for the Olympics.

The article finishes:

“She [Flanagan] is extraordinarily competitive, but not petty; team-oriented, but not deferential. Elevating other women is actually an act of self-interest: It’s not so lonely at the top if you bring others along…So, it was no coincidence that, with the support system she spent years building for herself, it was Flanagan who finally prevailed.”