Week #2 of Collegewise counselor training

We're starting our third week of training for the new counselor in our Irvine, CA office.  Here was last week's syllabus for the training program:

Topics for Day 4: The College Search

This session will explore how Collegewise counselors weed through the 2500 hundred colleges and help students find the right ones for them.  We’ll talk about the different types of colleges and the important characteristics at each, and introduce counselors to the most popular colleges for Collegewise kids.  New counselors will learn how to do college research, what tools to use, and how to help Collegewise families through the college research process.    We’ll also discuss the process of assessing a student’s chances of admission at various colleges and teach the science of creating a college list.  Finally, we’ll introduce several case studies and review how Collegewise counselors found the right match for these students.       

•    Discussion of “Harvard Schmarvard”
•    Introductory exercise
•    The concept of matchmaking – finding the right college for each kid
•    Overview of different types of colleges and characteristics that counselors and families should consider
•    How Collegewise counselors assist with the college search process
    – College search questionnaires
•    Research methods for counselors and kids
    – List of college search resources
•    How to plan college visits
•    Assessing admissions chances while composing lists
•    Finalizing a college list
•    “Reach,” “Target” and “Safety” schools

•    Case studies: what colleges would you recommend
•    Parent contact during college search process
•    Troubleshooting – finalizing college list

Topics for Day 5: Writing for College Admissions: Essays and Short-Answer Questions
No part of the college admissions is more misunderstood than is the college essay.  Virtually every family who enrolls in our program is worried about it—even the families of freshmen and sophomores.  This session takes trainees behind the scenes of an admissions office and explores the role of the college essay.  We’ll explain what admissions officers are really looking for in a college essay, reveal what kind of essay helps (or hurts) a student, and discuss the different kinds of writing students must do when applying to college.  Also, we’ll explain the essay system in the Collegewise program that consistently turns out great college essays while ethically maintaining the integrity of the students’ work.

•    Review and discuss case studies
•    Studying the habits of the admissions officers
•    Why colleges require an essay
•    The essay bottom line
•    The five most important pieces of advice to give kids
•    Clichéd topics that never work
•    How to brainstorm an essay with a student
•    Writing styles
•    Short answer essays
•    How Collegewise maintains the integrity of student essays
•    Review and analysis of successful essays

Topics for Day 6: UC, Cal State, and other Special Considerations 
As counselors in California, nearly every one of our students applies to at least one UC or Cal State campus.  They are great options for in-state residents, and with the variety of campuses, you can usually find a campus or two that’s a good fit for each student.  Both the UC’s and Cal States have pretty strict admission standards that Collegewise counselors need to know by heart since they determine whether a student is admissible or not.  Today, we’ll go over the two different university systems, their admission standards, and what the schools have to offer.

We’ll also use today to cover colleges on the other side of the spectrum: unique colleges that only appeal to a certain type of kid.  We’ll talk about these different types of colleges, what they have to offer, and touch upon the special requirements that they sometimes have for admission.

•    Overview of UC vs. Cal State system and campuses
•    UC/CSU admission standards
    – A-G requirements
    – GPA/testing requirements
•    Impaction
•    Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC)
•    Tools for learning about UC’s, Cal States, and admissions standards
    – List of resources
•    Special consideration colleges and resources to help explore
    – LD list
    – Minority and Single-Sex list 

•    Calculating UC/CSU GPA’s
•    Learning more about the campuses

Why do you need a college to think you do good work?

From Seth Godin's blog today:

"If you're waiting for a boss or an editor or a college to tell you that you do good work, you're handing over too much power to someone who doesn't care nearly as much as you do."

Here's how I think high school students should apply this thinking to college admissions.  

Seth isn't suggesting that you shouldn't try to achieve your goals, or that there's no need to work hard to gain admission to college.

But if you work hard in your classes, you shouldn't need an admission from Yale to feel proud of your effort. 

If you spent every Saturday of your junior year volunteering at a local homeless shelter, you've done great work whether or not Duke says, "Yes."

If you played three years of varsity basketball, or had a successful stint in Model United Nations, or acted in plays, sang in musicals, trained guide dogs for the blind or flipped burgers for extra money, you don't need your dream college to admit you to know that you're a good, talented, hard working kid.

The pressure of college admissions has pushed too many kids to leave their self worth in the hands of a very short list of selective colleges.  They believe admission from one of these colleges will validate all of their efforts.  If you believe that, you're giving too much power to the colleges.

Study.  Work hard.  Be curious and engaged.  Be nice to other people.  Make an impact in activities you enjoy.  Show your enthusiasm for things you're doing.  I promise you that you will get into college.  Keep being that same engaged learner and doer while you're there and you'll be happy and successful, no matter which college is lucky enough to get you for four years. 

And parents, if you've raised a good kid who tries his best, who plays on the soccer team, who kids and teachers like, who's nice to his sister and always helps clear the table, you shouldn't need him to receive an admission from a highly selective college to be proud of him (or proud of the job you've done as a parent).

Two words that can help you get into college

Two of my favorite words are "oomph" and "pithy."  Successful college applicants have oomph, and they know how to be pithy. 

"Oomph" means energy, vitality, or enthusiasm.

Students with oomph aren't just plodding through their classes and activities hoping to get into a good college.  They're high impact players.  Things are better when you've got people with oomph around.  They make classes, clubs, teams and even just lunches better for everyone. They make our college counseling program better for our counselors, too.  We're always on the lookout for students with appropriate levels of oomph. 

"Pithy" means  brief,

Great college essays have pithy beginnings, like this one from one of our former Collegewise students:

Quotation I think Holden Caulfield is a jerk.  There.  I said it.  I've been dying to say it ever since we read 'Catcher in the Rye' in my sophomore English class.

No messing around there.  That kid came right out and said something meaningful.

You don't have unlimited space on college applications.  You don't have unlimited time during college interviews.  Being pithy helps you make the most of your allotted space and time.

So bring some oomph into your life.  Don't just sit in your English class; put your hand up and try answering a question.  Be happy to be at basketball practice.  Thank your boss for giving you an opportunity.  Instead of waiting for your friends to plan something fun, start planning and wait for them to follow.

And when it's time to tell your stories to colleges, don't hide behind long explanations that don't really say anything.   Don't be shy.  Come right out and make your point.  Get pithy.

The smartest students never think they are

The smartest students we meet never talk about how smart they are.  In fact, they spend a lot more time talking about what they wish they knew more about.

Colleges look for students who are intellectually curious, students who are academically confident, but keenly aware of just how much more there is for them to know.

If you've taken hard classes in high school and done well in them, you should absolutely be proud of that.  It means that you've taken your genetic hand of intellectual cards and combined it with a good work ethic.  Those qualities will take you a long way in life. 

But it's important to remember that success in high school doesn't make you a know-it-all.  In fact, no amount of schooling makes you a know-it-all.  There will always be subjects you haven't yet been exposed to, theories you could better understand, or new perspectives you haven't yet considered. 

The smartest students understand this.  They don't feel compelled to talk about their GPAs, SAT scores, or number of AP tests they've passed.  They're not resting on those accomplishments.  They'll talk instead about their favorite classes, what excites them about college, and most importantly, how much more there is to learn. 

Colleges like academic confidence.  But curiosity is a much more appealing trait than arrogance is.

Pretend your college interviewer is Grandma’s friend

Jay Mathews of the Washington post and author of Harvard Schmarvard wrote a blog post today with some good college interview advice for students (he interviewed Harvard applicants for 20 years, by the way).

“My favorite piece of advice for nervous interviewees is to pretend that you are not at a college interview, but at your grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. One of her good friends, a woman you don’t know, is sitting next to you at the dinner table. She asks some friendly questions. You have fun answering, and ask her some questions, too. Do the interview in that spirit, and your best self will emerge.”

For private counselors: our hidden camera concept

One of the criticisms of many private counselors is that they help too much, that they write essays and polish applications and take over the process from the person who needs to own it–the student. 

It's important for all of us in the private counseling community to set a good example for kids and for others in the profession.  Most of the private counselors I've met are good people who just want to help kids.  But sometimes it's not clear where your professional obligations cross with your ethical obligations.  When that happens and you're not sure what the right thing to do is, we have a concept here at Collegewise that helps us; we just imagine that there's a hidden camera in the room and that an
admissions officer from the student's favorite college is watching us.

Of course, it's important to use good common sense.  We don't need a formal policy to tell us that it's not OK to write an essay for a student or to encourage a kid to lie.

But whenever we're in a situation where we need reassurance that we're doing the right thing, the hidden camera concept is our way of asking,

"Would an admissions officer applaud what we're doing?  Would she thank us for taking good care of that kid, for keeping the process honest and even making the college's job a little easier?  Or would she see a violation and think, 'This is what I don't like about private counselors.'?"

Here's an example.

A student tells us she wants to write her essay about volunteering on a blood drive.  After discussing it with her, it's clear to us that she's picking that story not because it was important to her, but because she thinks it will impress the admissions office (bad idea, by the way).  It's our job to advise that kid without taking over the process. So we imagine the hidden camera, and say…

"Absolutely–you can write about that.  You've also got lots of other things you could write about, too, things that you seem a lot more excited about when you talk about them.  It's up to you, but those could be good stories, too.  What do you think?"

I think the admissions officer would applaud that.  She'd probably think, "Thank you for protecting me from yet another cliched, 'How a community service project taught me the importance of helping others'" essay.

But if the kid comes back and says, "No, I want to write about the blood drive because community service is really important to me," we're at a crossroads.  We're being paid to give good advice, and we know this essay isn't the best choice.  So we have two options.

One option is to respond, "If community service were really that important to you, you would have volunteered for more than just one blood drive.  You need to pick a different story if you want your essay to help you get into selective colleges."

But any admissions officer watching us on the hidden camera would throw a red flag.  In this case, we're not letting that student make her own decisions.  We're injecting perspective that the student doesn't have on her own.  The hidden camera tells us that stopping a student from writing what she wants to write is a violation, even if the advice is good.

The hidden camera tells us what to do.  In that situation, we'd respond,

"OK–then that's what you should do.  Maybe you can tell me more about that experience and what made it so important to you?"

Now we get a thumbs up from the viewer.  Chances are, that student will realize on her own that she really doesn't have that much to say about the topic.  But if she forges ahead anyway, we can keep giving her good advice–we'll tell her to include lots of details, to write in her own voice, and not to worry too much about trying to impress the reader–and will do it without actually taking over the process. 

If you're just starting out in private counseling, you should read the NACAC Statement of Principles and Good Practice.  It's the industry guideline for counselor and admissions officers. 

But when you're in one of those situations where it's not necessarily clear what the right thing is to do, the hidden camera never lets you down.

What you can learn working at McDonald’s

I wrote a post last week about the value of getting a job while you're in high school.  There's a reason why colleges love kids who've washed cars or bussed tables or made pizza to earn an honest dollar; you learn a lot when you find and keep a job.  Here's an example. 

Today, Scott Heiferman is the founder of meetup.com.  But he started and sold his first internet company right in the middle of the dotcom boom in the late 90s.  And when the frenzy of the internet started to get to him, he went and took a job at McDonald's in New York City and wrote about the experience. 

Here's what his job at Mickey D's taught him about management:  


nobody thanked me.  i worked hard.  i got paid peanuts.  i even ate mcdonald's food during my break (deducted from my pay).  it was intense:  the cash register was complex, people want their food NOW, the lines get deep, the mcflurry must be made just right.  i was trying hard and i was doing an ok job.  now, i've been the leader/manager for most of my life.  i've had plenty of crap jobs, but i've been the boss for the past few years.  i faithfully read my fast company magazine and my harvard business review.  i've been taught countless times the value of a leader/manager showing appreciation for people's effort.  however, my instinct has often been that showing appreciation really isn't too necessary for good people.  they just take pride in a job well done — and, anyway, they can read my mind and see the appreciation.  well, from day 1 at mcdonald's, i was yearning for someone there to say "thanks".  even a "you're doing ok" would suffice.  but, no.  neither management experience — nor reading about management — teaches this lesson as well as being an under-appreciated employee.

A job doesn't have to sound great on your resume to teach you something. 

You can find Scott's entire post  about the experience here.

Week one of Collegewise counselor training

We just completed week one of training for our newest counselor, Stefanie.  Each week of this training, I thought I'd share what our trainer, Margot, has been covering.  Here's the syllabus she delivered for the first week.

Topics for Day 1: Introduction to College Admissions and to Private

This session will examine the intersection of college admissions and
private college counseling.  What is happening in the world of college
admissions that is pushing people to hire private counselors?  How is
Collegewise different in our approach to helping families?  What do our
counselors do that make our program so successful?   


•    Welcome
•    Collegewise history
•    The state of college admissions today (good news and bad news)
•    What college admissions paranoia does to students
•    Overview of college counseling
•    How do the public, the high school counselors, and the admissions
officers perceive private college counselors?
•    What makes Collegewise different
•    Collegewise Core Values
•    College counseling art versus science
•    Overview of the Collegewise program
•    The role of the Collegewise counselor
•    35 schools where the bad news is true
•    Admissions overview: the importance of matchmaking
•    Overview of training: what are our counselors expected to know?

1.    Be prepared to discuss “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions
Process of a Premier College” by Jacques Steinberg

“35 Colleges Where the Bad News is True”
“Overview of the Collegewise Program”
“Roles of the Collegewise Counselor”
“Collegewise Core Values”

Topics for Day 2 – College Admissions 101
This session will aim at taking the counselor inside the world of a
college admissions officer.  As you’ve already been an admissions
officer, this obviously won’t all be new information!  But we want to
help you learn how to explain what colleges really look for in
applicants to our families.  During our practicum, we’ll discuss how you
address each of these factors in the meetings with students and their
parents and some of the frequent questions that come up for each

•    Discussion of Steinberg’s book
    – Discussion questions
•    Academic vs. personal rankings
•    Course planning and how to read a high school transcript
    – Course planning guide
•    Testing Calendars
•    Crunching the numbers: how colleges use grades and test scores
(sample indexes)
•    Activities in admissions
•    Essays
•    Letters of recommendation
•    Interviews
•    The yield factor: why matchmaking is so important

•    Walk through first meeting – how do you go through transcripts, testing calendar, and activities with a student?
•    Walk through practice test registration for SAT, ACT
•    Set up a few testing calendars (high flyer and regular track)
    - Sample testing calendar
•    Summer planning

Topics for Day 3 – College Admissions 201
This session explores admissions at the most selective colleges.  What does it really take to get in to one of these highly selective schools?  How is the process different from that at less selective colleges?  We’ll also discuss recent Collegewise students who were accepted to highly selective colleges and what we believe made their applications so strong. 

•    Highly selective college admissions: why grades, test scores and activities are just the surface
•    25 schools where the bad news is true
    – handout
•    The five qualities of successful college applicants
•    Academic and personal rankings at highly selective colleges

•    How do you spot a true 201 kid?  Review of student files/cases who are at these 25 schools
•    What can you do with a stubborn 201 kid (or a kid who thinks he’s a 201 kid)?
•    Talking to students about these colleges, and making sure they come to College Admissions 201 seminar

What’s your role?

What's role on the baseball team, on the student government, or in the school play? 

You might say you're the pitcher, the treasurer, or Danny Zucko (if you're performing Grease).  Those titles are important, but they're not your roles.   Titles are easy to describe.  Your role is a little more complex.  Your role is different than a position, an office, or a part.

For example, in addition to being a pitcher, you might also be the one who gave all the guys nicknames.  Or you might be the one who kept people laughing on the bus even when you were in the middle of a 5 game losing streak.  Or you might be the one who called the catcher the day after his error cost the team the championship, just to see how he was doing.

In addition to being the treasurer, you might also be the one who mediated the dispute between two other officers, or who studied parliamentary procedure and encouraged everyone to use it at your meetings, or who knew how to stand up and give an impassioned speech when you could tell the group needed to be inspired.

In addition to being the lead in the school play, you might also be the one who made sure the understudies got invited out for the post rehearsal pizza, or who made it your mission to promote and sell out opening night, or you could be the one on whom the teacher relied to run rehearsals on days when she had to teach an after school program.

When we brainstorm college essays with our Collegewise students, one of the things we listen for is evidence of them playing their roles.  The roles are often more interesting than the job titles. 

So think about the roles you play, how you play them, and how they help you make an even bigger impact.  And don't be afraid to share them when you discuss your activities with colleges.