For private counselors: You’re marketing all the time

EnvelopeThis is the envelope I got from AAA yesterday.  So, why are they yelling at me?  I've been a AAA customer for 20 years.  Have I not always paid on time? 

People often ask me how we do our marketing at Collegewise, and when they do, they usually want to know about ads, speaking engagements, mailings, and other traditional ways of getting your name out to people.

But it's important to remember that when you're a private counselor, you're marketing all the time.  The way you answer the phone is marketing.  Your outgoing voice mail is marketing.  The tone of your email, the directions to your office, the way you write a to-do list for a student, your out-of-office email reply when you're at a conference, the wording of your invoices, the way you use your materials, whether or not you seem genuinely happy to see people when they arrive for appointments, and yes, what the outside of your envelope says–it's all marketing.

How hard would it be for AAA to do something else?

Envelope2

On colleges accepting YouTube videos with applications

Some colleges have begun inviting students to create optional videos they can post to YouTube so admissions officers can view them as part of the application.  Two of the most viral video creations from fall 2010 applicants were a flying elephant from a Tufts hopeful and a ukulele-playing student applying to George Mason.  

I got an email from a reporter doing a story about this who wanted to know:

NewQuotation

What do you make of this trend?  Fun? Not a good idea? Good way to showcase personality? Is this the college application of the future?  And does this concern you at all, either from a serious privacy level, or just the idea that these kids have their dorkiest moments that go viral, moments that they'll never really be able to escape later?

Here's the response I sent:

NewQuotation

I like the video option because it coaxes kids to relax and maybe even have a little fun.  Kids feel so much pressure when applying to college today that a lot of them are scared to death to just be themselves in their applications and essays.  Colleges are in the business of evaluating seventeen year-olds, so it’s OK to just be a real kid behind all the grades and test scores.  If a student sees the video option and gets excited to make and share something about himself, that’s probably a good sign.  Even the directions on the Tufts application section for the videos say, “Think outside the box when you answer the following questions. Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected. Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.”  They’re inviting kids to stop worrying about being impressive and to just share what they want to share.

We’re not necessarily looking at the future of college applications here because I don’t think videos are ever going to be something that’s required or even encouraged by a majority of colleges.  It’s time consuming for admissions officers to view these, and the applicant pools are just too large at many colleges to make this an option.  There’s also a question of inequity–too many kids don’t have access to video equipment.  Does a get a student who’s got thousands of dollars worth of equipment to shoot, edit and produce a masterpiece deserve an admissions advantage over a kid without those resources?  That’s why colleges will never be able to place too much weight on videos.  They’ll be a fun option that some kids use, but never a significant factor in the admissions process.     

And something you brought up in your original email is what concerns me about the videos–their longevity.  How many people do you know who would feel comfortable with the college application essay they wrote back in high school being posted online for the world to see today?  Most people wouldn’t want that.  YouTube videos live on forever.  When you’re a seventeen year-old college applicant and you make a video showing how much you like to air guitar in your room, that might make for an endearing college application video.  But how is that kid going to feel after college when potential employers do a Google search and see a video of him rocking out to Journey’s Greatest Hits?  Not good.

That last point doesn’t concern me enough to say that colleges shouldn’t invite kids to do this.  Kids are putting stuff up online with or without the colleges’ invitation to make videos  But it is something that I think people will be talking about five years from now when those applicants come out of college. 

What behavior does your college admissions approach inspire?

John Katzman, the former CEO of The Princeton Review, has always said that he judges tests by the behavior they inspire.  The SAT is a bad test because it inspires kids to study test preparation–knowledge that is only useful on the SAT.  AP US History is a better test because it inspires kids to study US History, which is arguably more important than SAT questions like "What is the greatest number of regions into which the shaded region can be divided with exactly two straight lines?" 

The behavior that a goal inspires tells you a lot about the goal.  If you're so obsessed with cooking that you take three cooking classes over the summer, your goal is inspiring good behavior.  If you're so obsessed with hanging out with the popular kids that you try to become something you're not, well, that's not so good.

College admissions works the same way.  A lot of kids make their educational goal to get into a "good college."  So they obsess about their GPAs and forget to find the joy in learning.  They spend way too much time and money on test prep instead of reading or playing the tuba or spending time with family and friends.  They grade grub, count their community service hours, and pick their activities based on what they think colleges will like.  They're stressed, sleepy, and maybe even a little scared by the whole process.

That goal isn't inspiring good behavior.

Some kids make their goal to find the right college where they can learn, have fun and make discoveries about themselves.  They work hard in high school but are also quick to tell you what their favorite class or teacher is.  They commit themselves to activities they care about and love what they're doing.  They want to learn as much as they can about different colleges because they know there are far too many choices to believe that only the famous ones could be right for them.  And most importantly, they're happy, optimistic, well-rested and eager to see what waits for them on the other side of high school. 

So, what kind of behavior is your college admissions goal inspiring?  And if you're a parent, what behavior is your goal inspiring in your student?  If you don't like the behavior, it might be time to choose a different goal.  

Things your teachers notice about you in class

I’m not a high school teacher, but I do a lot of our seminars at Collegewise. And it’s hard not to make judgments about a student by how he acts during a class. Whether you’re an “A” student or “C” student, I imagine that your teachers notice these things, too.

1. Are you writing things down?

When I say, “Here’s the most important piece of advice I can give you about college essays,” I notice which 3 of the 20 students in the room don’t bother to write down the advice that follows. And I know the 17 who do take notes are engaged enough to want to make the most of our time together. It tells me who’s serious about getting into college. Imagine if I were a chemistry teacher and one of those non-note-takers got a “C” and came to me to ask for extra credit so he could improve his grade. Not gonna happen, kid.

2. Do you seen genuinely happy to be there?  

I’m sure my trigonometry teacher in high school knew how bored I was by math because I spent a lot of time yawning in his class. Now that I’m up in front of the classroom, I realize how bad the sleepers look. Students who pay attention, who have pleasant expressions, who even acknowledge you with a nod of the head or a courtesy laugh at one of my stupid jokes, they come off like engaged learners. Imagine if you were on a date and the person was yawning during dinner, doodling on the tablecloth and generally looking bored. Wouldn’t you be a little insulted?  Doing those things in class is like saying to your teacher, “I don’t want to listen to you, and I don’t want to be here.”

3. Do you ask good questions? 

“Do we have to do this?” is a stupid question. “What’s an example of a college with strange essay prompts?” is a good question. Whether or not you ask, and the questions you raise, they both say a lot about you as a student. Questions that seek to help you better understand the material, or that just show you’re interested and want to more, are good ways to show your teacher that you are an engaged learner.

4. Do you participate?

At a seminar yesterday, I asked, “Who remembers from our essay seminar how you take ownership of a story?”  I could have predicted which kids were going to put their hands up–those that had been writing things down and were engaged in the discussion (see questions 1, 2 and 3).

5. Are you nice to other students?

If a student is having trouble understanding, or if he asks a question that seems silly to you, or if he’s just not as smooth and socially successful as the rest of the class, do you roll your eyes, snicker at him, or whisper a comment to one of your friends and then giggle?  If you do, trust me, your teacher notices. And I’ll tell you something–the kid who does those things is never one of the nice kids. The nice kid who leans over and offers to help the struggling one, who whispers, “Hey, want me to show you how to do it?”  I like that kid. Extra credit for you.

Ask Collegewise

We get a lot of emails from people with questions about our take on admissions issues, how we run our business, or why we approach parts of admissions process the way we do.  We thought that instead of trying to answer those on a one-on-one basis, we'd answer some right here in case any of our readers might benefit, too.

So, we're looking for some interesting questions to answer here on our blog.  If you've got one, email it to us at blog@collegewise.com.  And make sure the subject line reads "Ask Collegewise."  We'll pick some of the most interesting ones and answer them here.  Send 'em on!

For private counselors: how to build a (better) website

If you're a private counselor hoping to grow your business, you've probably thought about building (or have already built) a website.  The good news is that the rules for making good websites for small businesses have changed.  You don't need to
spend thousands of dollars to build a one  You don't need flash
animation.  You don't even need to be fancy (Google is the most popular
website in the universe and it has a ridiculously simple
homepage). 

But the bad news is that it if you don't give people exactly what information they came to find, and make it easy for them to find it, you're going to lose them.  Today's web surfers have short attention spans, and most people aren't going to spend ten minutes on your site trying to find what they need to know.  They'll spend maybe a minute and then move on.  So if you're looking to build, or improve, your website, make sure you make it easy
for people to find the answers to these five questions:

1.  Who are
you?

It's surprising how many private counselors have websites
that continuously use words like "we" or "us" but never come right out and say who's actually helping the kids.  Instead, they say things like, "Our expert advisers have a wealth of experience and have
guided countless students to admission to the nation's finest
universities."  What does that even mean?  Who are you?  If I enroll my kid, who is he going to be working with? 

If you
don't feel comfortable putting your name and a real bio on your website, you might consider not having a website at all.  Instead tell people who you really are.  Be proud of your background, even if you're still relatively new to this profession.  And don't say "We" if you
really mean "Me."  There's no shame in working by yourself especially if you're
good.  Families don't care if you're a big company or a one-person shop. 
They just want the right counselor for their kid.   

2.  What
do you do?

Be clear about what services you offer and what kind of student tends to match well with you.  Are you good with kids who have learning disabilities?  Do you know a lot about athletic recruiting?  Are you particularly knowledgeable about a few specific colleges?  Don't try to sound like you can help everybody (none of us can).  Instead, come right out and tell people what they can hire you to help with, what you do well, and maybe even what you don't do. 

3.  Where are
you located?

We got this one wrong on our own website for years.  We made people navigate all the way to the "contact us" portion of our website to find out where our offices were.  Big mistake.  Put your office location(s) on your homepage. Tell people right away where they'll need to go to work with you.  Don't worry about losing customers because of geography.  If that's going to be an issue for a family, you might as well tell them upfront; don't make them call you to find out what "Greater Los Angeles area" means.          

4.  How do I contact you?

Do you have an office phone
number?  An email address?  Do you care which one people use?  Don't
make people sift through your website to figure out how to get in touch
with you.  Make your contact information blatant and easy to find.  Put
it (or a link to it) on every page. 

5.  What do I do next if
I'm interested?

Don't put your prospective customer in the awkward position of having to contact you to ask what the next step is.  Come right out and tell them what you want them to do.  Do you offer an introductory consultation?  How do they schedule one?  And don't make the visitor fill out a long online form to request an appointment.  That's like forcing potential suitors to complete a long questionnaire before they can even ask you what your name is.  If the information really is important to you, have them fill it out after they've scheduled the appointment.        

Everything else on a website is secondary and probably more important to you than it is to your potential customer.  You can always add more pages and information later if you get repeated questions about testimonials, a newsletter or whether or not you have a blog.  Give your visitors what they’re looking for when they first find your section of cyberspace, and more of them will become your customers later.  

PS:  I've
learned a lot about websites and marketing from Seth Godin.  If you
want to have an effective website up as soon as possible for very little
money, check out his blog post here.  If you've built a website and want to make
it better, check out his book "The Big Red Fez."

PPS:  Our own website could do an even better job of making it easy for our visitors to find the information they want.  So we're making those changes now.  I'll share them here later next month when we're finished.   

The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions

Here’s an interesting 2005 New Yorker article by Malcom Gladwell about the subjective nature of Ivy League admissions, the inherent elitism it breeds, and best of all, why intelligent students will do well in life no matter where they go to college.

I’m including a few of my favorite parts, but the entire article is well worth the read.

On what people believe to be true about an Ivy League education…

At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.

On the role college plays in your success…

…the general rule seems to be that if you are a hardworking and intelligent person you’ll end up doing well regardless of where you went to school. You’ll make good contacts at Penn. But Penn State is big enough and diverse enough that you can make good contacts there, too. Having Penn on your résumé opens doors. But if you were good enough to get into Penn you’re good enough that those doors will open for you anyway.

On why Ivy Leagues give preference to children of alumni…

No good brand manager would sacrifice reputation for short-term gain. The admissions directors at Harvard have always, similarly, been diligent about rewarding the children of graduates, or, as they are quaintly called, “legacies.” In the 1985-92 period, for instance, Harvard admitted children of alumni at a rate more than twice that of non-athlete, non-legacy applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the school’s magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind their peers. Karabel calls the practice “unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst,” but rewarding customer loyalty is what luxury brands do. Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal alumnus. And if you want generous and loyal alumni you have to reward them. Aren’t the tremendous resources provided to Harvard by its alumni part of the reason so many people want to go to Harvard in the first place?

On the image of the Ivy League…

The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.

More for private counselors: fire your worst customers

Not all customers are created equal. 

I don't think the customer is always right.  Sometimes the customer is wrong.  Sometimes a customer is predisposed to be unhappy.  One bad customer demands the time and attention of three good customers (for the revenue of one).  They don't become fans.  They don't spread the good word.    You might satisfy them, but you'll never delight them.  And worst of all, those customers drain the morale from you and your staff.  They take time and attention away from people who are more likely to appreciate and benefit from what you're doing.

So, why would you spend all your time trying to make those customers happy.  What would happen if you fired those customers in a supportive, nurturing way, acknowledging that you liked their kid and wanted things to go well for her enough to give them their money back and refer them to someone else. 

Paddi Lund, a dentist in Australia, fired half his customers so he could spend his days with patients he enjoyed working with.  His business actually grew because of it.

Sprint once sent a letter to over 1,000 customers who were calling and complaining too much (up to 25 times per month). 

And we do it here at Collegewise. We work with great families.  We don't have to let a customer go very often because we try to choose our customers carefully.  But we do it when we need to, and believe me, it makes a difference.  We don't assign blame.  It's not that they're wrong and we're right.  It's just that we don't feel good taking their money if we don't think we can do the job they want us to. 

Imagine how much happier you could make your best customers if you didn't have to spend time trying to please your worst ones?

How to be lucky in college admissions

If you want to have more luck in your life (and in your college admissions process), it turns out you can create it.

According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, author of The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles,” lucky people think and behave in ways that unlucky people don’t.

Here are the excerpts from an interview in Fast Company magazine.  I think there are lots of ways to apply this to your college admissions process.

1. Maximize chance opportunities
“Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing, and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, which include building and maintaining a strong network, adopting a relaxed attitude to life, and being open to new experiences.”

Do you have the initiative to take a psychology class outside of school just because it looks interesting, or to try karate just because it looks fun?  Would you take the opportunity to start a car wash business with a friend or take a road trip to look at a college you’ve never heard of or introduce yourself to some students on campus once you got there?  Lucky students would do those things.  Unlucky students wouldn’t try anything unless they were guaranteed it could help them get into college.

2. Listen to your lucky hunches.
“Lucky people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings.”

Are you willing to listen to your gut instincts and apply to the colleges that you really believe are best for you, regardless of what your friends or the US News rankings say?  Would you write the college essay you want to write about how you sing in the shower even though your parents think you should write about doing community service?  Would you pick Oberlin over Princeton because it just felt right?  Lucky students would.  Unlucky students would never take what feels like a risk.  They always want to do what feels safe and guaranteed.

3. Expect good fortune.
“Lucky people are certain that the future will be bright. Over time, that expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it helps lucky people persist in the face of failure and positively shapes their interactions with other people.”

Are you excited about your future life in college?  Do believe that you’ll learn and have fun wherever you go to school?  Do you have enough faith in yourself to know that your work ethic and personal characteristics, not the name of the college you go to, are what will ultimately make you successful?  Lucky students do.  Unlucky students believe that everything hinges on whether or not Stanford or Duke or UCLA says “Yes.”

4. Turn bad luck into good.
Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, they don’t dwell on the ill fortune, and they take control of the situation.

Whenever a parent tells me that her daughter is “just devastated” by a rejection from her dream college, there’s a part of me that wants to swoop in and tell that kid, “Get over it.  Do you know how many people would do anything just to have the chance to go to college at all?”

Lucky students don’t dwell on college rejections, or the fact that they lost the election for senior class president, or that the their girlfriend broke up with them.  They believe there’s too much life to live to get bogged down by those events.  They know there are other colleges and other offices and other girls out there, and that they’ll probably end up with a better one now.  Unlucky students just want to lament their fate.

You can be a lucky student (or parent) if you want to be.

How pizza at Harvard led to a billion dollar company

We're always reminding families that many benefits of a college
experience can't be predicted.  You can't read about them in a college
guidebook or measure them with college rankings.  But you can find them
at any college.  Here's a good example.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is a Harvard grad.  He's interviewed in
the "Alumni Q & A" section of Harvard's website, and I thought this
was interesting.

What did Harvard bring out in you that you
might not have had when you arrived on day one?

"For me, most of
what I got out of Harvard was outside the classroom, including people
that I met and running the pizza business."

But that's only part
of the story.

During his junior year, Tony started that pizza
business on the ground floor of his dorm.  Here's the story, as Tony
described it in his new book

Quotation

It was through the pizza business that I met Alfred.  Alfred was our
number one customer, and he stopped by every night to order a large
pepperoni pizza from me.

We had two nicknames for
Alfred while in college: "Human Trash Compactor" and "Monster." He
earned these nicknames because every time a group of us would go out to a
restaurant (usually it was a group of ten of us at a late-night greasy
Chinese place called The Kong), he would literally finish everyone's
leftovers from their plates.  I was just thankful that I wasn't one of
the roommates he shared his bathroom with.

So
to me, it really wasn't that weird that Alfred would stop by every
night to order an entire pepperoni pizza from me.  But sometimes, he
would stop by a few hours later and order another large pepperoni
pizza.  At the time, I remember thinking to myself, Wow, this boy can
eat
.

I found out several years later that Alfred was taking
the pizza upstairs to his roommates, and then selling them off by the
slice…We ended up doing the math a few years ago and figured out that,
while I made more money from the pizza business than Alfred, he made
about ten times more money per hour than me by arbitraging pizza.

I
didn't know it at the time, but our pizza relationship was the seed
that would lead to many million-dollar business opportunities together
down the road.

And here's what Alfred ended up doing after college.