What the College Admissions Process Can Teach Business Owners About Decision Making

This article was originally featured in The Huffington Post.

Running a growing business, I’m making hundreds — maybe even thousands — of decisions every day (from what to wear and to how to sign an email, to what projects to pursue and who to hire). As director of our firm’s college advising team, I’m also guiding students through what is perhaps one of the most important decisions of their academic and soon-to-be professional lives.

But does helping students map out their academic futures make me a better business owner, or is it the other way around? I can’t decide.

As someone who’s in the business of decision making, I consider this often. Here’s my best advice I’ve gained over the years from working with students:


Don’t Succumb to, ‘What If?’

As simple as it is to say, it’s much harder to live: You can only make decisions based on what you know at the time. When applying to college, going the Early Decision route can offer a meaningful strategic advantage, but it does mean making a commitment to one school and one school only. Therefore, the “what if?” game may not only compound students’ confusion, but also actively diminish their chances of being accepted to one of their top choice schools.

In steering my students and making choices for my business, I often advocate taking a more active stance when the statistics are favorable and the time is right, despite the fallibility of the data available. In business especially, sometimes you have to jump even when the outcome isn’t entirely clear, because the time is right or the opportunity is too good to pass up.

As an entrepreneur, if you launch a product or pursue a new market, you should immerse yourself fully, despite any lingering doubts you might have. Dedicate your time and energy to maximize the outcome of your choice. In this way, I truly believe that any decision has the potential to become the best one.


Be Wary of Outliers

Advising students sometimes necessitates difficult conversations. College admissions have become increasingly competitive, and many schools are candid about their expectation of certain numerical marks on students’ transcripts and tests. Of course, there are outliers: Some accepted students fall outside the numerical ranges. Yet when crafting a coherent strategy, the decision-making danger for students comes from placing too much emphasis on those cases.

In business too, outliers are valuable data points, but they should be seen for what they are: exceptions to the rule. It’s not practical to build an argument on cases that deviate from the norm; in the business world, these “outliers” may look like huge overnight successes, or entrepreneurs who received massive amounts of funding with a flimsy business plan at best. Sure, outliers may inspire students and business owners to “go for it” (and there’s value in that). Stories of monumental and unexpected success can also serve as valuable lessons in believing in yourself and your product. However, we should all be wary of developing a strategy that weighs too heavily on the exceptions and that hinges on luck over preparation.


Embrace the Unknown

College admissions is an inherently human process, and when students recognize that there is no scientific formula for “getting in,” it gives them the liberty to take risks and be their most authentic selves. Similarly, when growing a company, a willingness to embrace the unknown can actually be a strategic advantage. When applying to college or making a business decision, it’s essential to accept the fact that some things will always be out of your hands. With that in mind, entrepreneurs must learn to get comfortable with uncertainty. Waiting for answers from an admissions committee is hard, as is anticipating the outcome of a business decision.

So, how do we make the waiting game a little easier? As I tell my students: Take comfort in fact that you’ve done everything in your power to increase the probability of a win. And most importantly, keep working hard!

It may be a cliche, but I believe that things typically work out as they should. The reason I feel this way is simple: Decisions aren’t what determine success; it’s how we manage their outcomes as students, teachers and entrepreneurs that matters most. Undecided still? Just give this approach a try.