How to make your next brainstorming meeting more productive

When we're in meetings with families at Collegewise, we spend as much time talking as we do listening. We have to listen carefully to know what advice to give, but if we tried to play amateur therapists and just kept asking, "How does that make you feel?" without saying anything in return, they'd start to wonder what they're getting out of this. 

But when we brainstorm a college essay with a student, it's the student's time to talk (as it's the student's essay to write).  So we have Collegewise kids write responses to 20 "Brainstorming questions" ahead of time and bring it with them to the meeting.  This lets them take as much time as they'd like to think about the answers and to share the parts that are most important to them.  During the meeting, we read the responses and ask them to tell us more.  And we follow the 70/30 rule–they talk 70% of the time, we talk only 30%.  That's why we can always spot a great story without hijacking the process.  Every student–even a shy one–gets a chance to develop, share and write her own ideas.

Chip and Dan Heath sent this newsletter today and offered a similar tip to make your next meeting even more effective.  Try it at your next meeting for the school newspaper, Spanish Club, PTA, etc.  And if you're a counselor, try it when you help a student brainstorm college essays.

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Change the way you brainstorm.
In most brainstorming session, the "talkers" in the group will share a few ideas, and then others will chime in with refinements of those initial ideas (rather than introducing a radically different point of departure). The effect is that, within 10 minutes, the group has shut down 99% of the potential conversation paths. One easy way to correct for this is to have every member of the team brainstorm privately and record their thoughts prior to the meeting. Then, start the meeting by asking people to share their ideas before the group discussion begins. That way, you can be more confident that you've charted more of the "landscape of ideas," rather than simply building on the (possibly misguided) ideas of the group's loudest members."

We’re hiring a patient, freakishly organized life of the party

Our Irvine, CA office is hiring 2-3 assistant college counselors to help us 1) take great care of the families who’ve hired us, and 2) keep our office running smoothly during our busy season. 

Who is Collegewise?

We’re a college counseling company who helps high school students find, apply to attend the right colleges for each student.  You’d be helping our college counselors as they prepare “A” students, “C” students and everyone in between with good advice, organization and a little cheerleading to make sure everything happens smoothly and thoughtfully.

What would you say ya’ do here?

This job is part office managing, part tutoring, and part customer service.  Here are some examples of things you might do in a given day working with us.

  • Make (and feel free to drink) coffee in the morning.  Must…have…coffee.
  • Work with a student and answer her questions while she completes the first draft of a college application (that’s the “patient” part of the job). 
  • Call students to remind them of their appointments with counselors.
  • Check our office supply stock and reorder any if necessary.
  • Print and copy materials for a seminar in the afternoon.
  • Work on a research project to find updated audition requirements for performing arts schools. 
  • Answer phones.  Make a good first impression.  Don’t use phrases like “A counselor will hit you back later.”
  • Meet with one of our counselors to review students’ progress.  Then call any kids who have assignments due. 
  • Send out an email reminder to families registered for an upcoming seminar.  No spelling or grammatical errors, please.  
  • Work at the front desk and enthusiastically greet families as they arrive for appointments (that’s the “life of the party” part of the job).  Introduce yourself.  Make them feel at home.  Offer them a freshly baked cookie.  Speaking of which… 
  • Bake a batch of cookies to hand out to students and parents who arrive for appointments.
  • Take and print new students’ photos to add to our bulletin boards.

Who are we looking for?

We’d love to find people who are interested or already have experience working in education and helping students.  Undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to apply.  But fit is more important than experience for this position.  We enjoy working hard and doing a great job.  We’d rather be forced to drink lizard spit than be that worker who shows up late, does sloppy work, or otherwise phones it in.  And we love working with a crew who feels the same way.  We also like to have fun here (there’s a gong in our office—more on that later).  If that resonates with you, you might really enjoy working with us. 

What else should you know?

  • Starting pay is $15 per hour.
  • We’re looking for people to work 15-25 hours per week, Mondays-Fridays (depending on your availability) from June-November.
  • We’ll provide all the necessary training about college admissions and the Collegewise way of doing things. 

What’s the next step?

If your interest is piqued, we invite you get to know us a little better by looking around our website.  Find out more about what we do, who you’d be working with and what we believe.  If you like what you read and think you could find a professional home here, please send a resume and cover letter to Allison Cummings, Director, at ocjobs@collegewise.com.  Like a great college essay, we think a great cover letter should help us get to know who you really are.  Don’t be afraid to be yourself—smart, thoughtful, maybe even funny.  Just don’t be generic.  And here are a few totally unsolicited tips for job seekers.

We hope to hear from you.  But if we don’t, we hope you find the gig you’re looking for someplace else.

Wanted: grammar snobs with big hearts

Do you have a good rapport with teenagers?  Do you enjoy helping students improve their writing?  Do you like hearing and sharing great stories? If you answered “yes,” you might enjoy helping high school kids with college essays (or you might be someone who compulsively responds with an emphatic “yes!” to any question posed to you).

Our Irvine, CA office is hiring college essay specialists.

What exactly is a college essay specialist?

Our college essay specialists meet with high school kids to help those students find their best stories for their college application essays.  Essay specialists then review the students’ drafts and provide written feedback.  We do not write essays for students or take creative license in any way, as doing so would not only be wrong, but would also actually prevent kids from being accepted to college.   

Five things potential essay specialists should know

1. Employment is seasonal from June-November.

2. We need people approximately 4-12 hours per week (specific days and hours are flexible).

3. Hourly pay is approximately $25 depending on the specific work you’re doing.

4. While editing may be done from home, essay specialists must be willing to commute to our Irvine, CA office 1-3 times per week to meet with students. 

5. We will provide the necessary training on our essay process.

Who is Collegewise?
We’re a college counseling company who believes that while going to college is important, going to a famous college is not.  Our college counselors show families just how many great colleges are out there, help relieve their anxieties, and try to inject some much needed perspective into the college admissions process.  Since 1999, we’ve helped over 3000 students attend 800 different colleges. We encourage kids to be themselves, to do what they love, and to strongly reconsider writing a college essay about how volunteering on one blood drive taught them the importance of serving humanity.  You can learn more about us on our website.   

Is there anything else you should know before you apply?
Our essay specialists who are great at this job have a background in teaching, tutoring, writing, and/or editing.  They love the convenience of editing from home but also relish the opportunity to meet face-to-face with high school kids in our offices a few hours a week.  They would never get angry with a student who accidentally left a modifier dangling, but would likely refuse on principle to order food at a restaurant whose menu used the wrong version of “your.”  They’re smart, cool, and frankly, quite pleasant to be around.  

How to apply
If your interest is piqued, get to know us a little better by looking around our website.  Find out more about what we do, who you’d be working with and what we believe.  If you like what you read and think you could find a professional home here, please send a resume and cover letter to Allison Cummings, Director, at ocjobs@collegewise.com.  We don’t play generic here.  Like a great college essay, we think a great cover letter should help us get to know who you really are and what makes you tick.  We love style and panache.  So don’t be afraid to be yourself (smart, thoughtful, or maybe even funny).  No calls, please.  And here are a few totally unsolicited tips for job-seekers.

We hope to hear from you.  And if we don't, we hope you find the perfect professional fit someplace else.

Big news—and new offerings—at Collegewise

First, here’s our big news.  Today, Arun Ponnusamy, formerly of Open Road Education, is rejoining Collegewise as a partner and college counselor.

Who is Arun?
In the last 15 years, Arun has run his own college counseling business, directed one of our Collegewise offices, worked as an Assistant Director of Admissions at both the University of Chicago and Caltech, and enjoyed a stint as an Application Reader at UCLA.  I’ve never met anyone who knows more about college admissions and how to help families navigate it than Arun does.   And I’ve done some of my best work at Collegewise in tandem with him.

What will Arun be doing at Collegewise?
Arun and I have enjoyed collaborating together informally on some fun projects over the last year.  But we want to do more.  We want a family in Detroit to be able to watch my college essay workshop online so I can show them that every kid has a story to tell.  We want the brand new counselor at a high school in Fargo, ND to have the option of completing the 40-hour Collegewise counselor training without ever having to leave her office.  And we want a student in Hong Kong to have access to Arun’s advice about how to make your Common Application a lot less common. 

We believe that every family should have access to the best college planning advice no matter what your budget is.  So whether you just want some free advice from our blog, a little guidance with an essay or application, or a college admissions expert to guide you through the entire process, Collegewise will be here with the best product or person for you.

What do we want to accomplish?
A big impact starts with big dreams; we want to change the college admissions world.  We want Collegewise to help a lot more families make sense of a process that has gotten much more stressful and complicated than it needs to be.  And Arun and I have decided that the best way for us to reach that goal is to work together again—full time—in the same company.

New offerings from Collegewise
Here’s what we’ll be releasing in the next eight months.

May

Online Collegewise counseling
Students anywhere in both the United States and the world will be able to meet with a Collegewise counselor by video chat.

Is There a Future Doctor in The House?: A Guide to Choosing a College and Preparing for Life As a Pre-Med
A lot of high school students who tell us they want to be doctors are a lot less certain about how to get there.  Our book tells you everything you need to know.

June

College planning calendars
Want to know exactly what to do and when to do it?  We’ll release the Collegewise college-planning calendars, accessible online so that 9th-12th grade families will know exactly what college planning steps to take and when to take them.

July

Story Finders: How to Help Students Write More Effective College Essays (Without Helping Too Much)
For teachers and counselors, we’ll help you help your students with a DVD of our college essay workshop plus a manual to show you how we help students brainstorm and edit college essays without hijacking the kids’ process and helping too much.

August

“Page Turners: How to Write a College Essay"
Just in time for seniors about to start your college applications.  A lot of good kids write bad college essays.  So we’ll show you how to find and share your best stories (hopefully before you write an essay about how a community service project taught you that it’s important to help people).

September

"How to Make your Common Application a Lot Less Common”
Arun will walk students step-by-step through how to fill out the Common Application, sharing all of his tips to make your application more compelling.  And he’ll show you how to avoid simple mistakes many students make.

October

20 school specific essay guidelines
We'll choose the latest short-essay prompts from 20 popular colleges and show students exactly how to approach them.

November

“The Collegewise Guide to College Interviews"
You don’t have to be a suave charmer to have a great college interview.  We’ll tell you what to expect, what to prepare, and even what to wear to your college interviews.

December

“The Collegewise Way:  How to Plan for College and Still Enjoy the Ride"
It's our how-to book for everything college admissions-related.  From picking a high school, to finding the right colleges, to deciding which admissions offer to accept, we'll share everything we've taught (and learned) after helping over 3,000 students gain admission to college since 1999.

That’s what we’ll be doing for the rest of 2011.  We’ve got a whole list of other projects (like financial aid advice, college counselor training, and college planning tools for schools) in the pipeline for 2012, but that’s a topic for a later blog post. 

Where and when to find them

In just a few weeks, we'll be opening our online store where you'll be able to find all of these new products as we release them.  If you'd like us to tell you when each of these new offerings is available, just sign up here and we'll email you first (before we even announce it on our blog).

So please join me in welcoming Arun back to Collegewise.  We’re so excited to be working together again and to help a lot more kids get into college in the years to come. 

College counseling lessons from a (Dallas) Maverick

Long before he owned the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban started MicroSolutions, a software reseller and system integration company, out of his apartment, a business he later sold for six million dollars.  He had this to say about what he did to become successful. 

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I read every book and magazine I could….One good idea that lead to a customer or solution and it paid for itself many times over…Everything I read was public. Anyone could buy the same books and magazines. The same information was available to anyone who wanted it. Turns out most people didn’t want it.  Most people won’t put in the time to get a knowledge advantage.  To this day, I feel like if I put in enough time consuming all the information available, particularly with the net making it so readily available, I can get an advantage in any technology business. Of course my wife hates that I read more than 3 hours almost every day, but it gives me a level of comfort and confidence in my businesses. At MicroSolutions it gave me a huge advantage. A guy with little computer background could compete with far more experienced guys just because I put in the time to learn all I could…I can remember vividly people telling me how lucky I was to sell my business at the right time…Of course, no one wanted to comment on how lucky I was to spend time reading software manuals, or Cisco Router manuals, or sitting in my house testing and comparing new technologies, but that’s a topic for another blog post."

That's a lesson we learned from great college counselors, too.  We train our new counselors, even those who were admissions officers before joining Collegewise.  We read books about college admissions. We read blogs.  We go to conferences.  We visit colleges while we're on vacation.  We do a senior season debrief every year where we analyze our seniors' results.  And we stay in touch with our former students so they can tell us about their college experiences.

Whether you're a private counselor, a high school counselor, or someone looking to join one of those ranks, there has never been more information available about colleges and how to help students find and attend them.  We know there's no way we could ever know everything.  But we also know that whether or not we're trying to learn it is one of the things that separates great counselors from average counselors. 

Lessons learned from the recession

Like a lot of businesses, we're finally starting to feel like we've successfully survived the recession.  Our business is growing and we feel good about our future.  But there's an opportunity now for us to take a hard look at what we got both right and wrong during the tough times of the last 2 1/2 years.

First, what we did right.

1.  In January of 2009, I created a financial aid and scholarships seminar for our Collegewise families.  I'd always been intimidated by that subject and saw it as outside of our core strengths.  But I took the time to learn it and put something together that does what we try to do for everything college admissions-related–take something complicated and make it easier to understand.  Today, that seminar is one of the most popular seminars that we offer, and we get great feedback about it from our families.

Lesson learned:  Always look for ways to make your current customers happier.  Never stop thinking about what they need and how you could give (not sell, but give) them more than you promised them.

2.  The bottom fell out of the economy right after our class of 2009 applied to college.  We immediately started offering a series of "State of The Nation" group meetings for our senior families.  The idea was that the better they understood how the economy would affect the admissions process, the more comfortable they would feel that the strategy we'd used together would still leave their kids with plenty of college options.  Today, we continue to do these meetings as "Back to School Nights" for senior families. 

Lesson learned:  Find ways to show your customers that you understand what they're going through.  Show them that they're more than just a customer and that you want to be there to help them with the challenges they're facing.  

3.  We started offering less intensive, cheaper "package" options of counseling where people could buy bundles of hours and individual help with college essays.  Today, those package plans account for 20% of our senior-related revenue, and many of those families ultimately upgrade to our full counseling program. 

Lesson learned:  You don't always have to come up with a new product to get new customers.  Instead, try selling your by-produts.  Look at your business and ask, "What else could we sell based on what we've made already?" 

Now, what we didn't do so well.

1.  As the news of the recession got worse, we wanted to work even harder to get new business.  So we invested in some direct mailing campaigns to run free seminars for potential families.  It was only moderately successful.  In retrospect, I would have taken all that money and spent it on our current customers, those people who'd already given us both their money and their trust.

Lesson learned:  Always spend the money and time on your current customers first.  Yes, if you want your business to grow, you've got to find new customers.   But it's much more expensive, and much less effective, to spend money to find a new customer than it is to delight a current one.  Get that right, and your happy customers will do your marketing for you.  

2.  We had to close our office in Los Angeles because our business shrank almost 65%.  That was the worst day of my Collegewise life and it was even worse for the counselors who worked there.  I'm not sure we could have done anything to survive that kind of hit.  But we might have been able to fight a little longer if our fixed costs, especially our rent, weren't so high.

Lesson learned:  Keep your costs as low as you can.  I know this is an obvious one, but when times are good, it's easy to think that you should plan for the continued growth that you're seeing.  It's a lot less stressful to struggle with managing growth than it is to struggle to pay the bills.

 

For private counselors: Sometimes it’s best to breakup

One of the hardest facts to accept as a business owner is that some people are predisposed to be unhappy, no matter what you do for them.  There is no scenario where you delight those customers, where they sing your praises and refer their friends.  So you spend all your time trying to change a professional relationship that's never going to be rewarding for either party.  When that happens, sometimes it's best to breakup. 

Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, understood this.  Southwest will respond to every letter they receive from a customer, but when Herb got the sense that Southwest and a particularly irascible customer just weren't right for each other, he broke up. 

From page 270 of Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.


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One woman who frequently flew on Southwest was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.  She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.  And she hated peanuts!  Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.'"

Yes, you should work like crazy to make your customers happy.  But you'll be a happier, more successful business owner if you're attracting the type of customer who's most likely to be delighted by what you do. 

And if you get the sense that you and a particular customer are never going to have a good relationship no matter what you do, it's best for both of you to break it off and have the opportunity for both of you to find someone else who's a better match. 

Why we don’t like career tests

We often have prospective Collegewise families ask us if we do any career testing as part of our program.  That's an easy one.  No.

I understand why they ask.  But if you're looking for college counseling advice based on what a test says your kid's career aptitude is, we're not the right college counselors for you.

Have you ever met a single successful adult who discovered their path because of a career test they took when they were seventeen?  I haven't. 

The truly great counselors we've known would never put much stock in a career test for teens.  We don't think most teenagers are supposed to know what they want to do with their lives yet. And we don't like to see kids making important decisions based on the results of a blunt, one-size fits all, instrument.

Picking a college is an important and potentially expensive decision.  So it's smart for kids to ask themselves if they have any idea what they might want to do with their lives before they decide where to apply.  And if a teen really does have a future career in mind, that should probably be one of many criteria they consider when picking colleges. 

But for most kids, their path to a future successful career probably won't be a straight line.  And we think that's OK.  No need to carve a premature path because of a what a standardized tests tells you to do.

Why our office is full of guidelines

I take a lot of friendly flack for writing guidelines in our office–documents that describe a process and exactly how we do it.  Whether we need to prepare for a new employee's arrival, train essay specialists, or make a good pot of coffee, I've got a guideline for it. 

Our guidelines aren't about enforcing standards of conformity.  We're not McDonald's, and I don't think it's good to legislate every step of every process in a business like ours.  Instead, our guidelines prevent us from having to recreate and re-explain a process over and over again.  For example, preparing for a new employee's first day is a lot of work for us.  From setting up the office, to getting office supplies, to having all of the employment paperwork ready, it's a lot to remember and easy to forget a step.  So way back in 2004 after we'd just hired another counselor, I wrote down everything we did to prepare (and included a few things we forgot).  I included lists of what to buy, links to the forms we'd need, and a description of what we want the first day to be like.  Each time we've hired a new employee since then, we go back to that guideline.  We always make some updates and improvements, but the guideline ensures some consistency no matter who's in charge, and it saves us the trouble of having to remember everything each time we hire someone.  It makes it easier to do a good job. 

Our guidelines also help us commit to improving everything we do.  Margot spent last spring completely revamping our counselor training.  Everything she did, from the schedule to the reading list to the outline of each day is written down.  Now that the training is done, she's going back through all of it and making adjustments based on what we'd like to do differently next time.  We're not currently preparing to train a new counselor.  But the last training is still fresh in her mind, so it's easy for her to make tweaks now.  We couldn't do that if our trainers just kept all that information in their heads.     

It takes some discipline to make yourself create them, but the payoff from guidelines have been well worth it for us.  Maybe a guideline could help your office, club or organization?  If you just ran a fundraiser for your club, why not write down what you did, what worked, and what you'd like to do differently next time?  It would probably make the next fundraiser easier to do and even more successful.

Seriously, we really do have one for making coffee:

Download The single most important document at Collegewise–how to make coffee

The Collegwise student manifesto

GPAs, test scores and activities never tell the full story of a student.  There are lots of kids with perfect grades who don't particularly like to learn.  Plenty of intelligent kids have average test scores.  And a student who does 200 hours of community service at a hospital because his parents forced him to do it isn't quite the philanthropist his resume makes him out to be.

That's why a student's future success is based far more on personal factors like attitude, work-ethic, and initiative than it is on any one piece of information on a college application. 

I'm not sure that you can force kids to adopt any particular personal characteristics.  But you can encourage them and show them the way.  So we're trying to do that with our Collegewise Student Manifesto. These are the kinds of behaviors and attitudes that we encourage from our students.  They also are the very same characteristics colleges love to see in applicants.  Kids who embrace them have more fufillng high school lives and more successful college application processes.  Those are the Collegewise kids. 

These ideas aren't just for kids in our Collegewise program–I think any student who wants to take a more productive and enjoyable approach to college admissions can gain something from this.  So feel free to share or repost it if you think your students would benefit.