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. 

What we’ve learned from our gong

Gong We tried something new in our Irvine office this senior season–we brought in a gong.  The idea was that kids would bang the gong loudly and proudly on the day they submitted their final college application.  We wanted to show families yet another way to celebrate the process, not just the admissions outcomes.  To be honest, we didn't know if kids would take to it or if they wouldn't exactly share our gonging enthusiasm.

But it's exceeded all of our expectations. 

At least a couple times a day, the gong rings out–LOUDLY–in our office to the delight of a proud college applicant.  You can see the wide grins and sense of accomplishment on their faces.  The counselors all applaud and offer our congratulations.   But the best part has been the parents–who smartly stepped back and turned this process over to their student and their Collegewise counselor, returning for this meeting, cameras in hand, to capture their kids' gonging celebrations.  A few moms have even joined their kids for their own photos in front of the gong. 

For those parents who can't make it, we take a picture and email home the photo on a certificate entitled, "There's a college applicant in your house!"  Kids have uploaded their gonging pictures to their Facebook pages and announced that they're officially done with college applications. 

The gong has proven to be more than just a silly tradition.  It's a big, loud acknowledgement of a job well done and a teenager taking one step closer to starting college.  A lot of these kids haven't been admitted anywhere yet.  But that's no reason not to celebrate this important step.  It reminds kids and parents that no matter which colleges say "Yes," they still have every reason to be proud.  And it's given our counselors their own sense of celebration for helping each student reach application completion.

So, what's your gong?

Students, are you reserving your celebration for when decisions arrive this spring, or are you celebrating the completion of your college applications in some way? 

Parents, are you letting your kids know how proud you are of their application efforts, and that your pride is not contingent on an offer of admission from a particular college? 

And counselors, are you not only finding reasons to celebrate your students' achievements, but also your role in helping them find their futures?

We can all learn a lot from the gong. 

How Collegewise counselors take it or leave it

Whenever a Collegewise counselor comes across news, a helpful website, or other information she finds useful, we send it to each other in an email with the subject line, “Take it or leave it” (“TIOLI” for short).

Originally Arun’s brainchild, the idea was that whenever one of us came across anything small or big that made our counseling lives a little easier, we’d share it in a “Take it or leave it” email.  TIOLIs remove email pressure.  If I find something interesting, I can share it with impunity.  If you like what I’m sending, great–“take it” and use it.  If you don’t find it interesting, “leave it” and delete it.  No hard feelings…for either of us.

Here’s an example.

Katie went to an Ursinus College info session yesterday.  She came back, did a quick write up about what she learned, and sent us all an email entitled “TIOLI: Ursinus College.”  Now I know that 90% of Ursinus pre-med students with a 3.3 GPA or above get into medical school.  I’ll take it, Katie. Thank you!

Other TIOLIs have shared everything from how we can use our work email (through Google Apps) to send text messages to our students, to an article about how to make your Outlook function better, to “The Dirty Thirty” most common grammatical mistakes, to how to handle the question when a prospect asks how we’re different from the competition.

The most useful part of the TIOLI is that all of our counselors have it at their disposal.  It’s a tool we all use, and it makes it that much easier to share information with each other.  It’s so easy to do.  Ask your colleagues if they’d like to try TIOLIs.  Maybe kick it off with a good take-it-or-leave-it of your own?

So there you go–take it or leave it.

Ask Collegewise: How do you handle customer complaints?

Kristen asks:


I'm the counseling director at an independent school in Maryland and I was wondering if you could give me some advice about how to handle parents who complain, especially when the problems they're experiencing aren't necessarily our fault.  These parents are our customers and they're paying a lot of money for their kids to be here.  But sometimes it feels like we're apologizing for things we really shouldn't have to apologize for, like when a student doesn't get into a highly competitive college we told him was out of his reach in the first place.  How do you make those parents happy without capitulating when you shouldn't have to?"

We train our counselors to do four things whenever a customer has a concern or a complaint.

1. Acknowledge the problem.

Imagine you took half a day off of work to wait for the cable guy at home and he never showed.  So you call the cable company and they tell you, “We have you on the schedule for tomorrow, not today."  They’re pretty much telling you that you’re wrong.  They don’t care that you waited all day.  Now instead of just being upset, you're furious.

If a customer thinks there is a problem, no matter who's fault it is, the first step is to just acknowledge it.  Hear their concern.  Show them that you’re on their team.  You don’t necessarily have to admit that you screwed up if you didn’t.  But to just say, “I can’t believe you had to wait for four hours and we didn’t show up.  I completely understand why you're frustrated”—that makes all the difference.  You’re acknowledging the problem, and you’re showing the customer that you care.

2. Apologize for the problem.  And mean it.

Has anyone in the history of customer service ever felt better when a business says, “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused"?  No.  So why do businesses even bother saying it? 

A real apology is sincere.  It comes from a human being.  There’s some remorse and regret expressed.  It’s an honest expression that you feel badly for your customer and wish that things were going better.

If the situation really is your fault, then you’ve got to own up to it.  You have to say some version of, “You’re right.  We totally screwed up.  There’s nobody else we can blame for it, and I'm so sorry that we let you down.”

But if it’s not your fault, apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you have to accept blame.  Years ago, a mother in our program called and yelled at me because her son’s application to his dream school wasn’t done yet and the deadline was in just two days.  We’d left voicemails for the kid and the parent for weeks.  We’d sent emails to both.  When we didn’t get a reply, I mailed a letter home addressed to the mother telling her we were worried about them and needed to hear back.  I didn’t feel one ounce of blame for this situation, and I didn’t accept any.  But I did say,

“I’m so sorry about the stress this is causing in your house right now.  Families enroll in our program to avoid exactly this kind of situation, and I feel terrible that you had to find out at the last minute that David was behind.”  

A sincere apology is usually the first step towards reconciliation.  Your customer will be more likely to acknowledge any role they might have played in this problem, and they'll be more open to whatever solution you offer.

3. Take ownership of the problem and do something about it. 

Is this a problem that can be fixed?  If so, your customer wants to know that something is going to be done to address the situation.  But more importantly, they want to know that somebody is making it a priority, that one person is taking ownership of it. 

One effective way to approach the problem is to promise to follow up by a specific date and time. 

Wrong way:  “I need to speak with our editor to find out the status of David’s essays.  I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back from her.”

Right way:  “I want to speak with our editor about this.  So I’m going to call her as soon as I get off the phone with you.  Hopefully she’ll pick right up, but if for some reason I don’t hear back from her by the close of business tonight, would it be OK if I called you by no later than 6 p.m. tonight just to update you?  I don’t want to make you sit around for another day wondering what happened.” 

Don’t ever make it your customer’s job to follow up with you.  Take on the responsibility not just of fixing the problem, but also of letting your customer know that you’ve fixed it.

4.    Leave this situation and your customer better off than you found them.

Problems can sometimes be a good thing.  They let you show your customer just how much you care about their experience.  When you listen, acknowledge the problem, offer up a sincere apology, and personally take on the effort to try to fix it, the customer will feel better.  She’ll be reminded why she trusted you in the first place. 

And if the problem is one that you just can’t fix, taking the steps above will still leave the customer better off than when she came to you with the complaint.

Thanks for your question, Kristen.  I hope it helps.

If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com.  If we pick yours, we'll answer it here on our blog.

Introducing the redesigned

This week we launched a redesign of our company website,  It’s been about three years since we did a major overhaul, but we had some specific goals in mind this time around.

1.    Make it easier for visitors to find what they’re looking for.
We didn’t want to assume what information people wanted from our site.  So we looked at our site data for the last year, found the pages that people navigated to most often (“Counselors,” “Services,” “Contact us,” Testimonials,” etc.) and displayed them prominently on the right side of the screen.  People that just want our contact information can get it quickly, but people who really want to take the time to learn more about us through our site will have that information, too.

We also set it up so that when visitors have to scroll down the site, the menu follows them down the right side of the page.  That should make it easier for them to move on to a new page when they’re ready.

2.    Allow us to make updates quickly and easily. 
We didn’t have the ability to update most portions of the previous site without involving a web designer.  Even something simple, like if one of our offices changed their address, we couldn’t just make that change ourselves.

In the new version, about 90% of the site is totally under our control.  We can add or delete pages, edit copy, and even insert our own photos.  If we have a big announcement to make, we can put it on the home page.  If we record video of one of us speaking at a conference, we can share it on the website.  When we add a new service or need to post a job or want to indicate that one of our free seminars is full to capacity, we’ll be able to do it ourselves right away.

3.    Less polish, more Collegewise.

We’d already overhauled most of the copy on our last version to accomplish that goal, so we just tightened it up a little in spots to make sure it said exactly what we wanted it to say.  And we made sure it was absolutely clear what we do, how we do it, and what we believe in.

But we also wanted to do with our website what we tell our students they should do with their college essays—just be ourselves.  We don’t want it to be an over-polished version of something we’re not.  We wanted it to be more Collegewise.

To accomplish that goal, we removed some of the flashier (for us) design elements.

Our old site looked like this:












The new redesigned site looks like this:













Our new site might not be as pretty as the old one in some places, but that was a trade we were comfortable making.  This isn’t 1999.  No prospective customer is wowed by a flashy website anymore.  We wanted it to be clean, easy to navigate for the visitor, and a good representation of what we’re all about.

A site that depicts who we really are will draw the right people to Collegewise.  Not everyone is going to like our vibe, but that’s OK.  We don’t do college counseling like everybody else.  If what we have to say on our website speaks to you, you might be a good fit for Collegewise.  If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too.

In the next 6 months
The new site gives us the ability to host our own online store.  That’s where we’re going to sell our book about how we do college admissions, videos of our seminars, and guidelines for admission to particular schools.

We’ll also be considering how we could use private, password-protected areas of our site for our Collegewise families.  One thought we’re exploring is putting recordings of our seminars up for families who aren’t able to attend, or giving them free access to the chapters of or book.

What we want to improve next
We’re not as happy with the posed current photos of the kids as we are with the rest of the site. We like that they’re all real Collegewise kids (no stock photography), but they came from a professional photo shoot we did at our offices.  They’re too posed and polished.  They aren’t real examples of what it’s like to be a Collegewise student any more than an overly-polished essay is a real example of the kid who wrote it.

So we’re taking photos ourselves now.  Not posed photos, but real pics taken with our own digital cameras of the things that happen every day at our offices—like counselors meeting with families, parents enjoying dinner at our “Senior Parent Back to School Nights” and kids banging our gong when they submit their final application.  That’s Collegewise. And we don’t need a professional photographer to share that.

We probably won’t start sharing those photos on the site until those kids are officially done here and off to college.  So that’s going to take a little longer.  But we’ll keep at it.

We hope you like the new design, and thanks for reading.

Celebrating one year of daily blog posts

Today’s a big day for me, as it was one year ago today that I set a goal to write at least one entry on this blog every day.  Here I am, 365 days—378 entries—later.

Why did I do this?
The first reason was personal—I just wanted to see if I could do it.  I wanted to see if I could discipline myself to write something on our blog every day.  And I didn’t want to ever phone it in and post just to say I posted that day—I wanted to be proud of what I put up.

But there were a lot of business reasons I did this, too.

I wanted our blog to be the best one out there about college admissions.  Our rule at Collegewise is that we don’t do anything unless we honestly believe we can do it better than anyone else.  We’ve had a blog since March 2006 and I’ve never been (and still am not) the only one from Collegewise to post on it.  But the blog needed a champion if we were going to make it as great as it could be.  Our counselors work incredibly hard and they just don’t have the time to post on the blog more regularly (and it’s not their job to do it).  So this was a natural fit for me.

Improving our blog was also a good way to decommoditize Collegewise.  It can be hard to tell the difference between private college counselors.  Other college counselors can tell kids when to take the SAT and whether or not they’re likely to get into Oberlin just like we do.  But we’re not like other college counselors.  We don’t do college admissions counseling the same way everybody else does.  Our passion, our beliefs about how families should approach college admissions, the way we hire and train our counselors, the fun we inject into the process with our students—that’s Collegewise.  And those things are much, much harder for someone else to copy.  The blog was another way to inject Collegewise into everything we do and to make it easier for people to see and appreciate just how different we are.

I also hoped that more regular blogging would help us build an audience.  It’s expensive to run advertisements and do direct mailing to interrupt people and beg them to pay attention to you.  I thought if we could dispense good advice on a regular basis, people would come to us for information.  And if we kept giving them good advice, they’d keep coming back.  We wouldn’t have to buy their attention—they’d give it to us.  And willing audiences are much more likely to become customers.

And finally, I wanted to use the blog as a tool to teach people.  I’ve always believed that teaching people about college admissions is what we do best.  Whether you’re a family in our program, an audience member at your high school’s college night where we're the featured speaker, or a subscriber to our email newsletter, when people tune in to what we have to say about college admissions, I think that's where we're at our best.  A blog can be a great vehicle to teach, which further differentiates us from our competitions.  Any college counseling company can run an ad or build a website that claims to have “premier college counseling.”  And any college counseling company can have a blog just to say they have one.  But if our blog can teach people better than anyone else can, it’s easy to see how we’re different.  If you actually learn something from us on the blog, you’ve gotten a sense of what we do and how we do it better than any ad could communicate.

What have the results been?

  • Our page views have increased dramatically.  In fact, we’ve gotten more page views in the last year since I started blogging daily than we did in the first three years of our blog.








  • We’ve gotten emails from students, parents, counselors and college admissions officers who probably never would have found us without our blog entries.
  • Many of our Collegewise families read the blog, too.  They’ve mentioned how much they enjoy it, and they often forward entries on to their friends, too.  It’s good for any businesses to make it as easy as possible for your customers to talk about you.  I think our blog helps our fan base do this.
  • Our blog is becoming a place where people land based on search terms.  If you Google, “Overused college essay topics,” “Should I take the SAT again,” or “How to fill out the activities part of the common app,” you’ll find our blog entries—and our advice.  Again, those are people who are finding us without us running ads to reach them. 

What’s next?
I plan to keep writing my daily entries for now, as long I feel I don’t have something to say.  But if it starts feeling like I'm posting just to keep the streak alive, I'll wait until I'm more inspired.  I’d rather post less frequently and keep it interesting than post mediocre stuff regularly.  But for now, I'll blog on.

More importantly, we’re going to start offering products to this audience we’ve patiently built.  I’m currently writing our college admissions book (the working title is “The Collegewise Way.”)  We’re going to be creating videos of some of our most popular seminars.  And we’d like to start offering training seminars for high school and private counselors who’d like to come spend a day with us to learn more about how we do college counseling.  Without the blog, those products wouldn’t have a willing audience who are coming to us to hear what we have to say.  But when each of these products is ready, we can announce it to our blog audience first.  And we can gauge interest in new projects by getting reader feedback, too.

So thank you for reading our little blog and for letting me mark this day.  If you’ve got any feedback, I’d love to hear from you.  Leave a comment below, or email me at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com.

Kevin McMullin

Ask Collegewise: “How should I fill out the Common Application ‘Activities’ section?”

Ana asks:


Hi there!  My name is Ana, and I am a huge fan of the Collegewise blog! The website is definitely one of the most informative resources for all things admissions, and it gives a levelheaded view that is rare in this often stressful process.  I was hoping you could answer a question of mine in a blog post. How should the extracurricular section of the Common Application be filled out? There is a drop down menu for selecting the type of activity, but where should the more specific title (ex. camp counselor, peer tutor, etc.) go: position held or activity?  What about the short description of the activity? If you have some spare time and could post an example Common App activities form with a few different activities, it would be extremely helpful to me and many other confused seniors!  Thanks for your time and your awesome blog."

Flattery like that will get you everywhere, Ana.  Here are a few tips for the activity section of the Common App.

Let's say your three principal activities are volleyball, writing for the school newspaper, and working as a camp counselor over the summer.  Here's how you might approach those. 

The drop down menu

Select the activity from the drop-down menu.  It's important to let this drop down menu do the work for you.  Look carefully and try to find a category that works before you select "Other club/activity."  There are a lot of categories you might not expect to find, like "Family responsibilities," "cultural," "academic," etc.

 Positions held, honors won, or letters earned

This section is for three things–your roles, titles and recognitions.  For example, if you work as a camp counselor, that's your role.  Put "Camp counselor" here.  If you were the Editorial Page Editor for the school newspaper, that's a title–put that here.  If you were the captain, MVP, and first-team all state in volleyball, those are recognitions.  Put those here.   

Roles, titles and recognitions are short and punchy, like “Varsity,” “Eagle Scout,” "Coach's Award," “Counselor,” “Founder,” “Sports Editor” or  “Captain”.  Anything that takes more space to explain should be put in the next section. 

Details and accomplishments

Ask yourself two questions for this section.  1)  Is it possible that whoever is reading this application might not understand what this activity really was based on the previous two sections alone?  2) Did I or the organization accomplish anything that can’t be summed up with a simple recognition that I listed above?  If the answer to either of those two questions is “Yes,” then you should provide that information here.

For example, let’s say you listed your camp counselor work under “Work (Paid).”  But what if the camp was specifically for children with physical and mental disabilities?  That’s something interesting the reader wouldn’t know just from the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could put the name and description of the camp, like “Special Camp for Special Kids: Camp for children with physical and mental disabilities.” 

And what if your school paper won a state-wide award during your junior year? That’s a cool accomplishment that can’t be summed up in the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could say, “2/2010 issue won the state-wide journalism award, “Excellence in Student Press.”

Somewhat annoyingly, the “Save and Check for Errors” function of the Common App will tell you you’ve made an error if you leave this section blank.  So even if you’ve already described everything necessary about an activity, you might need to just fill this space in with “High school football” just to get past the error message.  Try to include information here that fits the categories I’ve described, but if you just don’t have anything else to say, don’t ruin it by trying to make it sound good.  Just put the basic description in and move on. 

So using the example above, our completed Common App activity section would look like this when it's printed:



A few other Common App activity tips:

  • Make sure you click the “Preview” button at the top of the screen when you finish this section.  That’s the only way to really tell whether your responses fit in the spaces provided.
  • Pay attention to the directions for this section:  “Please list your principal extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities in their order of importance to you.”  It's important to make sure your activities really are listed in order of importance to you.  The first activity you list should be the one you’d pick if you were only allowed to list one activity (that’s a trick we teach our Collegewise students).  
  • “Principal activities” mean activities that were important to you.  And they don't necessarily have to be formal activities.  It's OK to list a hobby that's important to you, too.  So if you played JV badminton freshman year and never played again, it obviously didn't mean enough to keep playing.  Why take up the space with it here?  But if you write a blog, or host a book club, or knit sweaters, and it's something you really enjoy and spend a lot of time doing, it’s OK to list that here. 
  • Don’t try to list everything you’ve ever done.   It’s OK to have blank spaces.  Our sample student above only listed three activities.  But they were the three activities that defined her high school experience.  The reader gets what was important to her.  She doesn't need her to list anything else.
  • Don’t attach a resume.  The directions in this section (“…even if you plan to attach a resume”) make it sound like that’s something the colleges invite.  They don’t.  In fact, most colleges hate resumes.  They’re too long, they come in too many different formats, and they ignore the activity section of the college’s application.  Unless a college specifically instructs you to do a resume, we tell our students not to do one. 

CommonAppGuideImage And (shameless self-promotion coming) if you'd like more help, you might enjoy our Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.  We take you through every section of the Common App and share the same advice we share with our Collegewise students. 

Thanks for your question, Ana.  I hope it helps.

Ask Collegewise: How do I get started as a private counselor?

Liz asks :

I’m interested in becoming a private college counselor but I don’t have any experience.  Can you recommend some of the best ways to learn more about this field so I can get started?

There are a lot of ways you can learn more about college admissions.  Read books.  Go to conferences.  Read blogs like ours, or this one.

There are also a number of college counseling certification programs (many of which are offered online) that you could consider, like those at UCLA or UC Berkeley.

You can also learn about college counseling by actually helping counselors.  Why not contact a high school in your area and offer to volunteer your time as an administrative assistant to the counseling staff?  If you have a full time job and can’t be there during the day, offer to help them organize their college nights or to proofread their monthly newsletter.

You could also volunteer your time to programs that assist students, like College Summit.

Like any field, it’s going to take some time for you to develop an expertise.  But there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for people who want to help kids and are willing to put the time in to be great at it.

Thanks for your question, Liz.  If you’ve got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com.

Ask Collegewise: How do admissions officers feel about kids using private counselors?

Harris asks:


I'm a parent and I've read that admissions officers don't like it when students use private college counselors.  I'm not sure how comfortable you'd be answering the question given what you do for a living, but is this true?" 

It's a question of the type of assistance being provided.  I've never met an admissions officer who was against kids having help with their college application process; but they're certainly against a kid having too much help, not just from a private counselor, but from anyone.  They want to hear from authentic, 17 year-old applicants, not from packaged kids who are the product of too much help. 

Guiding, advising, and doing a little cheerleading to keep a kid's college spirits up are all within the acceptable boundaries.  Most admissions officers would be happy with a knowledgeable person recommending colleges for the student to investigate, or helping him get organized, or telling him that you think the fact that he taught himself how to make sushi (and that he now makes it for his family) might be an interesting thing to write about in an essay–those are all within the rules.  But if you pick the colleges for him, fill out the applications and overrule his choice of topic for his essay, then you're going too far.  Good counselors know where the boundaries are.   

If you've got ten minutes, here's a good 2008 NPR interview about this very issue.  Just make sure you listen to it all the way through so you hear the admissions officer's take what the right kind of help really is.

Thanks for your question, Harris.  If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com

Collegewise turns 11

It's our birthday today, as it was August 16, 1999 that I officially filed papers with the County Clerk of Orange County to start Collegewise. 

At that time, the Backstreet Boys had the number one CD.  Neither the Ipod nor Facebook had been invented yet.  Google was still privately owned and (founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were still in graduate school at Stanford).  And I was driving to kids' houses to help them fill out college applications at their kitchen tables.  Yes, things have changed a lot for all of us since then.

But rather than celebrate everything that's happened to us in the last 11 years, I thought I'd share some the things we're going to accomplish before our 12th birthday:     

  • Sometime next month, we'll be rolling out a new version of our website.  One of the features will be an online storefront where we'll soon begin selling products like online videos and written guidelines to help students find, apply to and attend the right colleges.
  • We'll be launching Collegewise University, a series of workshops for counselors on topics ranging from basic college admissions training, to how to help kids find their best stories for college essays, to how to build and run a successful college counseling business. 
  • In the next few months, students anywhere in the world will be able to work with a Collegewise counselor or essay specialist.  We're not ready to release the details just yet, but this one, we're particularly excited about.
  • Arun Ponnusamy of Open Road Education and I will be working together again on all of these projects.  Arun helped me build and grow Collegewise from 2004-2009, and we've both done some of our best work together.  As part of our collaboration, Arun and I will be doing regular installments of the tentatively titled "Collegewise Live," a series of free webinars where we'll be answering live questions and sharing our advice for students, parents and counselors.

So those are some of the things we'll be looking to celebrate by the time we turn 12.  If you'd like to be kept up-to-date with our progress, subscribe to our blog or join our Facebook page. Then you'll be the first to know when each shiny new product is released. 

Thanks for reading, and happy birthday to us.