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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.

But…

“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.

Five tips to help you manage change

If you’ve ever had to deliver news to a group about a coming change, you know how much potential there is for people to be skeptical or even outright unhappy. Maybe you work for a school that’s instituting a potentially unpopular policy change. Maybe you’re a student leader who has to tell your constituents that the prom or fundraiser or annual performance won’t be the same as it’s always been. Maybe you’re a parent who has to tell your kids that your family’s financial situation—and in turn, their college options—has changed. Even a change that is inherently good can be jarring and uncomfortable when it arrives unexpectedly, is communicated poorly, or is just flat-out handled badly. But if you take the time to clearly and thoughtfully explain what’s coming, if you give people time to get comfortable with it, if you allow them to be heard when they have feedback or concerns, most people will at the very least accept—and at the very most join you as an eager advocate for—the change.

Here are five tips to give you the best chance of a good outcome.

1. AEAP (As Early as Possible)
The best time to tell somebody about a change is before it happens. “This is coming” is easier to adjust to than “This is here.” If the change didn’t sneak up on you unannounced, share it with your people as early as you feel is appropriate. Don’t keep something secret unless there’s a good reason for it. People will feel valued and respected when they’re invited to hear the news early, even if the change you’re sharing isn’t a sure thing yet. It will give them time to get comfortable with what could be—or what is—coming. And they might even be able to help you make the change.

2. Control your own story.
When you’re intentional and specific about who is sharing the news, as well as when and with whom they’re sharing it, you control your story. But when it leaks out and spreads via hearsay, you’ve given up control. Gossip is born from uncertainty. And even the most well-intentioned third-party story-spreaders will inevitably leave out facts, create confusion, and lead to a feeling that something secretive is happening that is cause for concern. One way to control your story is to keep it a secret. A better way is to release it in a smart, organized way that assures everyone that they’re in the company loop.

3. Honesty beats spin.
It’s tempting to couch a change you’re sold on in only the best terms, or even to leave out any details that detract from it. But the more honest you are about the impending change, the more trust and support you can expect in return. People know when they’re being sold to, and spinning the story will only make them more suspicious and anxious. Share the good parts, but don’t exaggerate the potential benefits.

It’s also helpful to be honest about the aspects of the change that aren’t necessarily all positive. Are there risks? Uncertainties? A chance it might not work? Bring up the (potentially) bad after the good. Your people will appreciate the story without the spin.

4. Don’t fake democracy.
It’s great to ask for early feedback and to listen to what people tell you. But don’t do it under the pretense of giving them a vote if the decision has already been made. “We’re considering doing this—what do you think?” is very different from “We’re doing this—what do you think?” Be clear which one it is. And don’t give them the illusion of a vote if they won’t be invited to cast one.

5. Specific questions earn specific feedback.
A general question like “What do you think?” will often lead to a general response. But specific questions like “How do you think this might help solve our problem?” or “Do you think we’re overlooking anything important?” or “What are two things we could do that would make you more comfortable with this change?” will lead to more specific and more helpful feedback. And always end with, “What did I miss?” An open question at the end of a specific exchange is often when people bring up the topic that to them is the heart of the matter. But start with specific questions if you want to get the most helpful feedback.

There’s also a point at which you can spend too much time planning and crafting and managing your change, and not enough time just getting on with it. Overthinking your change management is almost as bad as underthinking it. When in doubt, keep it simple. Tell people as early as you can. Be honest with them about what’s happening and why. Treat them like trustworthy adults who deserve to know what’s really happening rather than being kept in the dark and then given a sales pitch. Your change management might not be perfect. But getting the basics right will mean that both the system and the people will be forgiving of any minor change management mistakes along the way.

Five reads on leadership & college admissions

Leadership is one of the most misunderstood traits in the college admissions process. That fundamental misunderstanding is why students who are thriving at their part-time jobs, in their after-school art classes, or in their martial arts training will ask if their lack of leadership will hurt their admissions chances. It’s why so many kids start clubs in the fall of their senior year so they can list them on their college applications. And it’s why so many parents feel pressured to send their kids to expensive summer programs that claim to have identified their students as emerging high school leaders and promise to enhance their skills.

If you’d like to better understand how colleges actually view, evaluate, and reward leadership, here are five quick reads that will dispel most of the myths, help you identify if and how your own leadership could be an admissions strength, and potentially relieve you of any unnecessary feelings of leadership shortcomings.

Here’s a great reminder from the University of Virginia that colleges appreciate leadership, but not more or less so than they do plenty of other valuable high school experiences.

A broader sampling of colleges’ views courtesy of Brennan Barnard, who asked a number of college admissions officers to share their thoughts on what it means to lead.

Here’s an example of effective leadership at the high school level.

And another example, this one of leadership without an official title.

And finally, some advice on how to be a leader without a leadership position.

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!

Does everyone pay the same price at a college?

One of the best analogies I’ve seen about paying for college comes from Kalman Chany’s Paying for College Without Going Broke:

“And not everyone pays the same price for a given college. In fact, going to college is a bit like traveling on an airplane. If you ask the person across the aisle what fare she paid, it may be completely different from your own. Some people may be paying the full fare for college while others pay far less, so you should never initially rule out a school based on ‘sticker price.’”

That’s also the reason every family with a student applying to college should also file a FAFSA to apply for financial aid. Imagine if there were one—and only one—website travelers could use to make sure they got the best possible price for their ticket. If you cared about how much the ticket cost, you’d use the website. You’d have nothing to lose and plenty of money to potentially save.

That website exists when it comes to paying for college. It’s the FAFSA site, and it’s here: https://fafsa.ed.gov.

Make sure to follow the directions from your chosen colleges about what to submit and when, but all of those schools will almost certainly require the FAFSA.

That was us then, this is us now

Earlier this month, I shared my plans to rewrite the Careers page of our Collegewise website. What felt fresh in 2006 felt dated today, and it reminded me how powerful it can be to take a new, critical look at things you’ve long since stopped evaluating.

Here’s a screenshot of the old page. That was who we were then. All those words are still true. But Collegewise has grown and evolved since then. We needed to give potential Collegewise applicants the most complete, honest portrayal of the place they’d be joining if they came to work here. We’re not just deciding if they’re right for us; they’re also trying to decide if we’re right for them. And the old page just wasn’t giving them enough information to make that call.

So here’s the new page. It talks a lot more about who we are and what type of person is most likely to be happy and successful at Collegewise. It explains our culture and what it’s actually like to work here. And most importantly, it features the part of Collegewise we’re most proud of—the people, the way we work together, and the comradery that not only makes us happier employees, but also helps us be even better counselors.

All of these principles take a page out of how we’d tell students to present themselves in college applications. Be honest. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Clearly present the most important information. And focus on who you are today, not on who you were many yesterdays ago.

Our new Careers page won’t resonate with everyone who comes across it. And that’s fine. Like colleges, we’re not the right fit for everybody. But now we can be sure again that those who our page resonates with will be responding to the Collegewise we are today.

That was us then. This is us now.

If you know someone who might enjoy working at Collegewise today, please send them the link to our Careers page. If we end up hiring them, we’ll pay you $700 after the person completes three months of successful work.