For high school counselors: How to teach families more by sharing less

As counselors, we're all teachers, too.  We educate families every day.  Most high school counselors I've met do a lot to teach their families how to prepare for, apply, get accepted and pay for college.  It's a crucial job with an unreasonable amount of information to convey.  But I think the best way to teach families–not just give them information, but to actually get them learn and to use it–might be surprising. 

Share less.

I've done hundreds of college admissions speeches at high schools.  But I realized this year that when I share ten college application tips with seniors and their parents, while most families (hopefully) enjoy the speech, they don't remember the tips when they leave.  They remember one or two of them, but they don't recall all the advice about how to put them into action.  They remember the story I told about the Collegewise kid who wrote her essay about losing all those elections, but they don't remember why I shared it.  So while I gave an entertaining speech that people seemed to like, I haven't really taught them anything (they didn't learn it if they can't go home and do it).   

So I've been trying something new.  Before I do a speech, I figure out the 2-3 most important lessons I want the audience to take away from it.  Everything other than those 2-3 main points is secondary and either gets cut out or used to support one of the main points.  It's hard to delete information because everything feels important.  But I do it anyway and focus on the upside–that my most important points are going to get the majority of the attention.

Then I spend the entire speech selling those 2-3 main points. I share stories about Collegewise kids and parents, what they did, and what happened as a result.  I try to paint a vivid picture of what will happen if they follow these 2-3 pieces of advice.  And I give them marching orders–I tell them how to put it in action when they leave.  The feedback I've been getting so far has been great. 

I'm not suggesting that you dumb down your information; it's just the opposite.  You're picking the points that deserve the most attention and then carving out time to give it to them.  I don't need 45 minutes to explain what it means when a college has a January 1 deadline.  Instead, one of my points might be, "Don't let anyone care more about your college applications than you do."  That one idea lends itself to several stories about kids taking responsibility for the college applications, not allowing parents to fill out the application or write the essays, and following up with schools to make sure the application is complete.  But they all lead back to the main point that kids are the ones going to college, so they should care about it more than everyone else in their life.  If families just remember that one point, they end up making better decisions throughout the application process. 

Here are a few ways I think a high school counselor might try this:

  • If you write a newsletter, instead of writing 12 articles on different topics, pick the 2-3 most important things you want families to know at this time of year, and use your newsletter to teach them.  A family that learns and does those three things won't get mad at you for cutting out the article about good questions to ask on a campus visit.  And they'll be even more likely to read the next issue because what you taught them was so valuable.
  • If your office is hosting a "senior parent night" at your school, what are the most important actions you want your audience to take after they leave?  Do you want them to start their college searches, begin their applications, utilize the services your school provides?  Pick the most important ones and use the speech to sell them on it.
  • If you keep a webpage of helpful college planning resources, trim it down and play favorites.  Giving them 18 links to different websites with information about financial aid and scholarships isn't as helpful as telling them which 2-3 you and your counseling team think are the best. 
  • If you attend a conference, take great notes during the sessions, pick the 2-3 best ones you attended, and do a write up for your families and fellow counselors.   
  • You can also use the "less rule" to help set families' expectations of how your office can help them.  If you encourage them to "utilize your counseling office," they don't have a clear picture of what that means.  Promise less, and they'll utilize you more effectively.  That sounds like this.

"We're here to try to answer all of your college-related questions.  In particular, here are three areas where we feel we can be of great benefit to our students."

Telling them everything might not be as valuable as teaching them something.  As usual, your mileage may vary.  But it's been working well for me and I thought I'd share.  I hope it helps.