Shirag Shemmassian

Set up contingencies so that you can pursue your business the right way, so that you don’t make worry-based decisions.


Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is a college and medical school admissions expert who has helped hundreds of students get into schools such as Princeton, Yale, Caltech, and UC Berkeley.

Growing up with Tourette Syndrome in a middle-class family, Dr. Shemmassian was often mocked by peers and teachers and discouraged from applying to elite colleges. Therefore, he taught himself everything he needed to know to graduate debt-free with his B.S. in Human Development from Cornell and his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.

Dr. Shemmassian has been featured on The Washington Post, US News & World Report, and NBC, and regularly speaks at schools like Stanford, Northwestern, and Georgetown. He presents on topics including writing memorable personal statements, developing a unique extracurricular profile, and acing interviews.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

I always had dreams of attending an Ivy League university, but no students from my high school had ever been admitted. Therefore, I self-studied what it takes to get admitted and attended Cornell for my undergraduate education. Soon after, friends and acquaintances started asking me for help with their college applications and I helped them achieve similar admissions success. While in college, I was also studying what it takes to get into the country’s best medical schools and was successfully able to guide a number of applicants. Over time, the number of requests grew organically and the business was born.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

After completing my morning exercise and having breakfast, the first thing I do each work day is respond to emails from our students, prospective students, and team members. I routinely hear how it’s a bad idea to address emails first thing, but I see it differently. To me, there is no activity more important than helping our students and consultants achieve their best work, so I make it a priority. Then, I focus on improving our work processes, producing content for our site, or whatever else needs to be done. In the afternoon, I take calls from prospective customers to ensure that we have a healthy student pipeline. It helps me to segment my work in this way: to handle emails first, then “CEO work”, followed by sales. Each requires a different way to think, so segmenting helps me avoid task-switching costs. At the end of each day, I have dinner with my family, spend time with my wife and 1-year-old son, and answer emails once more before heading to bed.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Ideas come to me randomly. If they’re something I need to work on, I jot them down on my phone. If I think they should be pursued by a team member, I’ll email them the idea right away. I get to ideas that I need to complete as soon as I’m able. Some require doing online research beforehand, whereas I can get to others right away. Since my business is primarily intellectual, bringing ideas to life typically involves some form of writing. I like to write in my home office, away from all distractions.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Over time, I’ve observed the prospective customers’ growing comfort in receiving admissions support over the phone and via email. I used to receive a lot more questions about the legitimacy of my business, but families now increasingly see the value of being able to reach out and receive help any time of day and over the weekend.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Exercising six days a week. It wakes me up and sets a productive tone for the day.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Plan for the worst-case scenarios so you can focus on growing your business instead of worrying. I used to find myself worrying about unlikely situations that would tank or significantly harm my business, and those concerns kept me from achieving my potential because I was playing not to lose instead of playing to win. I’ve since realized that many of these scenarios can be buffered against, whether by hiring someone, paying for a service, completing a project, etc.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

You don’t need to do anything in particular to be successful. I suspect that everyone would agree with the idea that there are multiple paths to a successful business, yet I routinely observe entrepreneurs pursuing one shiny object after another, whether Facebook ads, YouTube, etc. It’s important to have a clear strategy–marketing, customer support, etc.–and filtering the pros and cons of every approach through that strategic lens.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Understand what people want before jumping to give them what you think they need. As an expert in a given niche, it’s easy to brush aside what your customers hope to receive because you do, in fact, know better. However, if you don’t address their concerns in a way that shows them you care, you’ll lose your customers’ trust. Even if they end up purchasing your service, they won’t be as willing to apply your guidance.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Early on, I wanted to send my students resources from the web that would help them with various aspects of their applications. Unfortunately, neither my students nor I found value in much of what was out there. Therefore, I started writing my own comprehensive guides that ended up performing quite well in Google. This was before I had ever heard of SEO. While the way I publish new content for the site is much more systematic, I still focus on what our students actually care to learn. Write for people, not for an algorithm.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I used to think that I had to something if I wanted it done right. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only are there certain tasks that others could do much better than I can, but there are things that I’m uniquely good at that I should be focusing my time on. I had no choice but to overcome my limiting thinking because my time was already at a premium given full-time work responsibilities and a growing family. Hiring people to help me was the best decision I had to make.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I love to cook, eat, read about, and travel for food. My friends routinely ask me where they should dine in cities around the world. Therefore, a business idea I’ve had is a high-end travel concierge service focused primarily on eating well, at every price point. Since I’m busy enough these days, someone else will hopefully pursue it 🙂

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

For her birthday, I gifted my mom a $100 Amtrak gift card so that she could visit her grandson more often. It’s been such a pleasure watching them get to know one another.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Calendly has been incredibly helpful for managing meetings. I get to select my availability and batch all of my phone communication. Site visitors can click a button that takes them straight to my calendar and I can link to my schedule in any email.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. Revisiting its lessons serves as a powerful reminder that we get to choose what thoughts to fill our minds with. Some help us progress, whereas others hold us back. I want to focus much more on the former.

What is your favorite quote?

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

Key Learnings:

  • Set up contingencies so that you can pursue your business the right way, so that you don’t make worry-based decisions.
  • Hire help before you think you need it.
  • Actively train your mind to think positively.