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.   


45 minutes of free college application advice

In case you missed our regulararly scheduled programming, here's a link to last night's episode of our online TV show.  We talked for 30 minutes about college applications, then did 15 minutes of Q and A. 

We'll be back on air Tuesday, December 7 at 6 p.m. PST.  You can join us at our channel.

"How to Revive Lifeless Applications"

with Kevin and Arun

Watch live video from College Admissions Live on 

Advice for nervous parents of college applicants

Kids aren't the only ones who feel judged during the college admissions process.  A lot of parents understandably worry that their student's admissions success or failure will somehow be a reflection on their parenting, that if the dream college says, "No," it will be a sign that you just didn't do as good of a job as the other parents at the dinner party who won't stop talking about their kids' awards, SAT scores and total number of community service hours completed. 

When you feel that college application anxiety start to come on, ask yourself two questions:

1.  Have you raised a good kid (even if your teen occasionally tries your patience like even the best teens do)?

2.  Have you done your best as a parent (even if you've occasionally made mistakes like even the best parents do)?

If you can answer "Yes" to those two questions, really, how much more can any parent reasonably be expected to do?

A parent can't control which colleges accept or deny your student.  All you can do is make sure you keep answering "Yes" to those prior two questions.  Instead of letting yourself feel judged, be proud of your efforts to raise a good kid and be a good parent.  And remember that our entire system of education (and our society) would have collapsed long ago if the only way to become happy and successful in life were to attend one of about 40 prestigious colleges who reject almost everybody who applies.

Good kids with supportive parents will be fine no matter where they go to college.

Last call to join us online tonight for free college application advice

We'll be live online tonight for:

How to Revive Lifeless College Applications
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, November 3
Live @ 6 p.m. PST 
For free, at our online channel

We'll discuss…

•    Why sharing fewer activities and awards can tell a college even more about you.
•    How successful applicants inject personality to make their applications memorable (without resorting to gimmicks).
•    Why resumes, extra letters of recommendation, and samples of your art or music sometimes hurt your chances more than they help.

We'll talk for 30 minutes, then you ask questions for the final 15 minutes (via the channel's chat function).

How to watch
Just visit our channel tonight, November 3rd at 6 p.m. PST. (What time is that in my time zone?)

We hope you'll tune in to join us!

Are you the Randy Moss of the classroom?

Randy Moss is one of the greatest receivers ever to play in the NFL.  And as of today, he appears to have been cut from his team (again).

Nobody disputes that Moss is a great receiver.  It's his attitude that's the problem.  He's known to give up in the middle of a play especially if he doesn't think the ball is coming to him.  He complains (about coaches, the team, and not getting the ball thrown to him often enough).  He can make a team a lot better when he wants to, but coaches know that they can't count on him to lead by example with a good attitude and a consistent work ethic.  That's why it appears that he's unemployed for the second time in three months.  

A straight-A student who only participates when participation is counted towards his grade, who only talks to teachers after class when he needs extra credit, who fought with his counselor for two weeks to get his Spanish grade changed from a B to an A, and who seems to care a lot more about his grade than he does about learning the material?   He's like the Randy Moss of the classroom.

Your attitude towards learning says as much if not more about what kind of student you are than your grades do.  The students who teachers enjoy having in class, who teachers are happy to recommend strongly to their chosen colleges, they're often those who have the best attitudes, even if they don't have the highest grades.

A lot of receivers who aren't nearly as good as Randy Moss still have jobs today.  They don't have better hands–they just have better attitudes.   


A homework and study tip

Imagine you were taking the SAT and every 5 minutes, somebody interrupted you and asked you a question like,

"Excuse me, do you know what time it is"?

"How do I get to the closest deli from here?"

"Want to hear a funny story about my most embarrassing moment?  Well, here it is."

Every five minutes, for the entire 3 and 1/2 hours.  What a disaster. 

Wouldn't it completely disrupt your concentration?  Could you possibly be expected to focus and do well while wading through critical reading passages and trying to figure out math questions about two trains leaving two different destinations, one traveling at 1/3 the speed of the other train?

No matter what score you got, you'd know you could have done better if that idiot would have just shut up and let you concentrate.  You'd feel like you didn't even get a fair chance to do well on the test. 

If you're answering emails, texting or checking Facebook every five minutes while you're trying to study, isn't that pretty much the same thing?  


You’re not perfect, and neither is your future college

There's a great line in my favorite movie, Good Will Hunting, in which Will's psychologist says this about Will's new love interest:


You're not perfect, sport.  And let me save you the suspense–this girl you've met, she's not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you're perfect for each other. That's the whole deal.  That's what intimacy is all about. You can know everything in the world, sport. But the only way of finding out that one is by giving it a shot."

That's a lot like how finding your college match works.

I talk a lot about college matchmaking and finding schools that fit you.  But I don't believe in collegiate soul mates (at least not until you've officially dated one for awhile).

If you're applying to college, you might believe that you've found the one perfect college for you.  But trust me ("sport"), it's not perfect.  No college is.  And it's not the only one where you could be happy.  There are dozens of colleges who's characteristics are similar enough on paper that you couldn't possibly tell the difference between them. 

Wherever you end up at college, there are going to things you like and dislike about it.  But if you choose carefully and then commit to making that four-year relationship work, your chances of looking back on the experience as one spent at your collegiate version of a soul mate increase exponentially.

So don't worry about finding the perfect college.  That would be like evaluating potential dates based on whether or not you want to marry them–you couldn't possibly know for sure.  Instead, accept the uncertainty and concentrate on choosing your list of colleges carefully.  Just as you shouldn't necessarily date anyone who asks, you shouldn't apply to any college just because it looks nice or because other people seem to like it.  Think about what would really make you happy.  Do your research.  Visit colleges campuses.  Enjoy how many great potential matches there are.

A simple but crucial tip for college interviews

Stefanie in our Irvine office offers this college interview tip–make sure you listen to the question.

Don't scoff.  That might sound obvious, but a lot of students are so concerned about their answers that they forget to listen to–and consequently don't answer–the question. 

Stefanie interviewed over 400 students while she was an admissions officer at USC.  And the first question she asked most of them was,

"Tell me a little bit about your high school, maybe one thing you like about it, and one thing you wish was different."

She asked it as a general question to help students feel comfortable and ease into the interview.  But a lot of students would go right to detailed descriptions of their activities.  They were so anxious, they couldn't wait to start talking about what they'd accomplished.  But that wasn't the question they'd been asked.

None of those kids torpedoed their chances of admission with those answers alone, by the way.  No college interviewer is out to get you, to trip you up and find the reason to reject your application.  But it certainly would have been a stronger start if they'd carefully considered the question and given a thoughtful answer.  

So during your college interviews, just relax and listen carefully to the question.  If you don't have an answer right away, that's OK.  Stop for a second and think about it.  That's what thoughtful people do when posed with a good question.

But most importantly, remember that your college interview is a conversation.  Good conversationalists are just as good at listening as they are at talking.

You can find even more advice in our "College Interviews" video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

Insight from a different kind of dean

Randy Nelson is the Dean of Pixar University, the education and training division of Pixar.  Pixar is the animation studio that created the Toy Story series, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Ratatouille.  Their CEO went to the University of Utah, by the way, not an Ivy League school.  But that's for another blog post.

Nelson had this to say about what they look for in a new hire.


Mastery in anything is a really good predictor of mastery in the thing you want done.  If you take a young person who’s the best skateboarder, or the best glassblower, or is really good at playing spoons, you’re going to find something about that personality—if they are truly a master—that has set their mind in a way that you can use in your enterprise whether you’re an educator, a business person or both.  That sense of, ‘I’m going to get to the top of that mountain’ separates them from all of the other applicants almost instantly.  There’s very little chance that someone’s going to achieve mastery on the job if they didn’t get there before coming to your workplace.”

College admissions officers tend to notice the same thing about applicants.

For example, you don't necessarily have to be the lead in the school play to impress a college.  You could become a master of stage lighting instead.  You could take a class over the summer to learn it.  You could study how the experts on Broadway do it.  You could read books, websites and blogs.  You could write your own blog about it.  You could talk at length about the best examples of stage lighting and the pros you've come to admire.  And you'd make your school's stage productions that much better. 

Even if you had no interest in studying drama or doing stage lighting at the college level, any admissions officer would be impressed by your desire to learn more and your drive to become a master.

Find something that interests you, something you really enjoy.  It won't feel like work when you dive in and try to master it.  Whether it's being the goalie on the lacrosse team, speaking Italian, playing the violin, flipping burgers at a hamburger stand, stamp collecting, rodeo, fashion design or tap dancing, your path to mastery will teach you a lot.  And it will make you more interesting to everyone, including colleges. 

Try this college admissions test

Here's a test I gave my audience at a high school's "college night" last week (parents and students both got to play).

1.  Write down the names of the three people you most admire.  You don't necessarily have to know them personally.  They just have to be real people.

2.  Describe why you admire them in 3-4 sentences each.

Now answer these two questions:

Did any of the people on your list go to a prestigious college (Google 'em if you have to)?

Did you mention any prestigious colleges in your descriptions about why you admired these people?

There were 41 attendees in the audience. The number of people who answered "Yes" to at least one of those questions? 


What were your results?