Lily Herman has accomplished a lot, all before graduating from college. We met for french fries and ended up talking for three hours. Lily is the founder of The Prospect, the world’s largest student-run college access organization. Their articles help students get through high school and the admission process, and succeed in college and their careers. Lily is a junior at Wesleyan University. She’s also a columnist for USA TODAY College; senior editorial intern for The Daily Muse; a national contributing editor for Her Campus; and community editor at HelloFlo. Oh and did I mention that she’s also one of Glamour’s Top 10 College Women? Learn her career advice and more about The Prospect.
Lily Herman, Founder of The Prospect
What inspired you to start The Prospect?
Great question! A couple of things inspired me to start The Prospect. When I was in high school, I was fortunate to have two parents who attended college, and my mom in particular really immersed herself my college admissions process to help me find and choose the best college. I realized soon, however, that many of my peers didn’t have the same experience, finding no support at home or at school (not-so-fun fact: The average American high school has one college counselor for every 476 students). Additionally, I personally had a lot of fears and anxieties during the college process and my first year of college that no one seemed to be able to answer for me; it would’ve been nice to have someone help me through it!
When I met my co-founder Steven Gu online during my first semester of college, we talked about how incredibly different our experiences had been when pursuing higher education. Steven is a first-generation college student who did the entire process pretty much on his own and wish he’d had more support, especially from students who knew what he was going through.
After a couple of long email threads about our feelings on education, we decided to create a website that allowed college students to give the honest, pithy, and informal lowdown on how to get through the college admissions process. While our site is accessible to everyone, we also really wanted to help students who are underserved when applying to college, including minority, first-generation, and low-income students, as well as rural and homeschooled high schoolers and students who are first-generation Americans.
How would you describe the organization in a few sentences?
Our “official” tagline: The Prospect (TP) is the world’s largest student-run college access organization, dedicated to helping students survive high school, rock the admissions process, and thrive in college and beyond. The org has over 140 staffers (all under the age of 22!) who work on a popular admissions blog as well as half-dozen other youth empowerment programs.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learned by starting you own organization?
Oh goodness, I could totally write an entire book on this! I think the most important thing I’ve learned from running TP is knowing when to step in and when to step back when it comes to leading the team. It’s easy to want to micromanage everything, but the best leaders are those who take a back seat and cheer on their team members as they try things for themselves. I certainly don’t know all the answers, and I shouldn’t expect other people to know them, either.
To put it simply, being a leader requires a lot of following.
You’ve helped more than 600,000 people with the college admissions process and succeeding in both high school and college. That’s absolutely incredible! What has been your proudest moment so far?
Thank you! The awesome thing about helping so many students get into college is that it allows you to experience tons of proud moments. We get lots of great emails, tweets, Facebook comments, and Tumblr messages where kids share their college admissions success stories, and that warms my heart. What’s also really cool is sharing my favorites with out entire team, because they get to see how all of our work is paying off.
I think one of the coolest proud moments, though, was the first time I met a random TP reader in-person and completely accidentally. One of our TP interns (who was a high school senior at the time) was visiting Wesleyan during its admitted students week, and another prefrosh came with her to shadow my biology class. That prefrosh asked how we knew each other, and our intern explained that I ran a website called The Prospect, which she worked for.
“Oh yeah, I know The Prospect,” the random prefrosh said. “I follow you guys on Tumblr.” I nearly fell out of my seat. It was amazing to be able to put a face to one of our thousands of readers.
You were recently named one of Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women! Congratulations! What was that process like and what’s been the most exciting part of being chosen?
Thanks so much! It was definitely a long process (I filled out the application over several months of the summer followed by three months of periodic interviewing and question-answering), and the whole experience has been so rewarding.
I think one of the most exciting parts of being chosen has been meeting the other nine women that were selected—they’re all so incredibly inspiring, interesting, and fun, and we’ve had a great time together. Getting to share this experience with them has been wonderful, and it’s also been a great joy getting to meet other Top 10 College Women alumni!
You manage over 140 people as editor-in-chief and CEO of The Prospect. What tips do you have for growing and managing a team?
First and foremost, grow because you need to, not just for the sake of growing. Especially when running a virtual organization (like a blog or website), it’s really easy to scale super quickly, but that doesn’t necessarily means you should. Managing people takes a ton of time (even virtually), so it’s still a large commitment, and you should weigh the pros and cons of adding each person on much as you would for an in-person position.
Second, take time to learn when to put on the blinders and follow your vision and when to stop and ask other people for their opinions and ideas. Like I said earlier, knowing when to follow others despite being in a leadership position is so important, and the collaborative environment of The Prospect has allowed us to grow and thrive.
Your work has been published in publications such as Forbes, Mashable, Newsweek, TIME, USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Daily Muse and Her Campus. What advice do you have for other people trying to get their writing out there?
Networking matters as much as your actual writing, and it’s crucial when trying to get your work out there. I can’t tell you how many people I know landed awesome writing gigs, internships, and jobs because they knew someone who knew someone else. It’s a people industry like any other, so while you do need writing chops, you also need to focus on connecting with other people in the industry!
It should be noted that you accomplished all this while you’re a full-time student in college! What are the most important skills for success in college?
I value time management more than anything else! It’s so underrated, but I truly believe it is the Beyoncé of all soft skills. A lot of people think of it as some sort of abstract concept, when really it’s something you have to constantly practice just like anything else. It’s a muscle that needs to constantly be worked, and if you don’t use it for an extended period of time, you can lose your mojo.
To be good at time management, you have to spend a ton of time figuring out what does and doesn’t work for you, and you have to go through absurd amounts of trial and error. However, feeling like you’re in control of your schedule and your time is a wonderful and powerful thing, so take the time to learn about how you work best!
What is your favorite quote?
“Man imposes his own limitations, don’t set any.” – Anthony Bailey
Who is your role model or mentor?
Oh goodness, I always feel so weird answering these questions because I have so many role models and people I go to for advice. I get to work with a slew of #GIRLBOSS women every day, so it’s hard to choose just one.
A couple that mean a lot to me: Naama Bloom from HelloFlo has been wildly inspiring to work with (she’s also really funny), and the entire team at Her Campus is super cool. I also work on an all-female editorial team at The Muse (which was also co-founded by three women and has an almost all-female board), so there’s definitely a women empowerment theme going on everywhere I work that I feel has been so influential.
My parents are also very, very awesome people.
What advice do you have for people who are about to graduate from college and enter the “real world”?
I feel like it’s kind of weird to be giving advice when I haven’t graduated yet, but here’s the advice a guy gave me last week when he accidentally thought I was a college senior and started spewing all sorts of wisdom: “Embrace the panic, and enjoy the ride.”
Thank you, Lily!