Questions from our counselor training final exam

Every counselor hired at Collegewise must complete our 40-hour training program, observe meetings with students and parents, and pass a final exam.  Whether you're joining us right out of college or leaving a job in admissions at a highly selective university, we think it's important to train everyone from a common starting point. An experienced admissions officer obviously knows how colleges make decisions, but we've intellectualized that information and made it teachable to high school kids and parents.  Our training doesn't just teach the information; it also teaches new counselors the best way to explain that information to families. 

As I write this blog entry, our newest counselor (who was an assistant director of admissions at USC before joining us) has finished her Collegewise training and is completing her final exam.  There are over 100 questions on the exam covering everything from how colleges admit students, to how we counsel kids, to how to deal with difficult counseling situations. 

Here is a sampling of some of the questions we ask:

1. Why is matchmaking an especially important admissions element for students who want to attend the most selective colleges?

2. List the four elements colleges consider when assigning a student an “Academic Ranking” during the admissions process.  It’s not necessary to describe or elaborate on each of the elements at this time.

3. What are the 5 “Core-Subjects” that most colleges use to calculate a student’s GPA?

4. When a Collegewise counselor helps a student select extracurricular activities, what is the single most important question a counselor should ask the student in regards to each activity?

5. List 5 clichéd essay topics that high school students often choose for college essays.

6. Letters of recommendation are an important part of college admissions.  What are three important questions we should encourage students to ask themselves when considering which teachers might be good choices to write letters.

7. Name two schools that focus almost exclusively on “pre-professional”

8. Define “single choice early action” and name one school who uses it.

9. Create a testing calendar and a preliminary college list for the student
listed below.  Assume he started with us in August going into his
junior year.  Use the Collegewise testing calendar and the Collegewise
preliminary college list.       

Michael’s GPA at the end of his sophomore year is a 3.6.  He is
scheduled to take the following in his junior year:  AP English,
Pre-calculus, US History, Honors Chemistry, Ceramics and AP French
IV.    Michael toured the UCSB and UCLA campuses 2 weeks ago.  He likes the
feeling of being on a big campus but being in a city like L.A. is too
scary for him. He’d prefer less of a city feel.  He also wants to stay
in California.

10. What are some signs that would indicate that a family might not be a
good match for the Collegewise program?

11. Based on your preliminary experience, describe the type of family who is
likely to appreciate and benefit from the Collegewise program.

12 Describe a circumstance under which a Collegewise counselor might endorse a high achieving student’s decision NOT to enroll in an available AP course (ex. AP Spanish) during her senior year of high school?  Assume the student wants to attend a highly selective college.

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What do great college matches sound like?

We try to stay in touch with our former students so they can tell us about their lives in college.  Their responses always remind me of three things:

1.  The vast majority of college students are happy where they are.

2.  College guidebooks will never be able to capture a college like
the students who actually go there can.

3.  A lot of what makes college wonderful can't be measured or
predicted.  You have to get there and discover it for yourself. 

Thanks to the following former Collegewise students for giving us permission to share their stories. 

Medrano College is great!!   I have been involved in the Appalachia program
since the beginning of the year, which is a community service program
that takes students from Boston College to the Appalachia region during
spring break.  I will be spending my spring break in South Carolina
building houses, and getting involved with the community.  It is a great
way to give back, and meet other freshman students from Boston
College.  Football is big at Boston College and everyone is really into
supporting the football team.  Weekends at Boston College during the
fall are all about football.  Go BC!!!!!!!

Samantha M.

Boston College, Class of 2012


American College is the most thrilling experience of my life. There are days I never sleep, it requires a lot of work (but once you start taking classes in your major, you find a newfound energy to succeed), and I've met people I will never forget. Weekend afternoons are spent doing homework, or sitting in my friends' rooms listening to blues and jazz stations, as we sip black coffee over political discussions.  The city is great and full of things to do. On Halloween, walk down Massachusetts Ave. to Dupont Circle and trick or treat at the embassies. You'll probably step onto the grounds of 20 countries if you're lucky.

Alex H.
American University, Class of 2012

HolyCrossCollege has been so much fun!  My classes are SO great, even organic chemistry!  I'm taking a psychology class too and I love it so much, I think it may be my major.  All the professors are so smart and so helpful, each one of them is more than willing to help out in any way that they can. Holy Cross is such a tight community that I felt so welcome the moment I stepped on campus.  We decorate for Christmas, we have small personal retreats throughout the year, you get a handwritten card from your class dean on your birthday.  Things like that make me feel at home here.  I feel like at any other school I wouldn't have had nearly the same, personal experience as I have had at Holy Cross.

Christina G.
College of the Holy Cross, Class of 2012

SLO Cal Poly is an awesome, small townish, safe school.  I mean safe as in I've walked around at 10:30 at night and not felt the least bit uncomfortable.  It's really mellow here.  Everyone is laid back but hard working.   If you're looking for an engineering school, this is your best bet!

Jessica D.
Cal Poly  SLO, Class of 2012


CKatieollege has been the most amazing experience of my life so far. I joined a sorority, started writing for the school newspaper, and even spent this last year studying abroad in London and Athens.  I really feel like I have grown up in college, but the responsibility isn't something that weighs me down; it’s what I love about it. I couldn't wait to get out of high school, but I never want college to end!

Kate Sc.
Pepperdine, Class of 2010

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Final week of training for our new counselor

It's our last week of training for our new counselor here in Irvine. So as she prepares for her big final exam (and graduation dinner this week!), here are the last two sessions of training we completed with her.

Topics for Day 8: Collegewise Marketing
A lot of people think of marketing as running ads or handing out stress balls at conferences.   The marketing that we do at Collegewise is a little unusual in two ways.  1)  We take the majority of the money that we could have spent on traditional marketing and spend it to run a program that our customers will talk about.  2)  We’ve found that  the best way to market ourselves is to build an audience and teach something when we’re in front of them.  So in this session, we’ll discuss the various ways we make it easy for people to learn more about what we do, like referrals from other families, speeches at high schools, and writing our email newsletters and our blog.  Then we’ll talk more about the different programs that we offer, what is included in each, and how much they cost so that everyone can explain them to interested parties. 


•    How most businesses think of marketing
•    Out definition of marketing
•    Why marketing is not a department
•    The Five principles of Collegewise marketing   
•    Overview of the Collegewise Programs
Topics for Day 9: How to Do an Introductory Consultation
Nearly every family who enrolls at Collegewise first schedules a free, 30-minute introductory consultation.  We think this is the perfect way for families to meet the person they’d be working with and learn more about the program.  It’s also a chance for counselors to assess the fit and make sure that every family who enrolls is one who is likely to appreciate and benefit from what we do.   We don’t do sales presentations here, but we don’t just give away free advice either.  This session will teach you our system for running an introductory meeting that helps both the counselor and the family decide if it makes sense for us to work together. 

•    The difference between our introductory meetings and (slimy) sales presentations
•    What our introductory consultation is not
•    Your most important job in a consultation   
•    Steps to ensure a great meeting
•    Indications that the fit might not be good   
•    How to tell someone they might not be a good fit   
•    Common questions prospects might ask

Ringing the bell in our Bellevue office

RINGTHEBELLWhile Katie in our Bellevue, WA office has done a masterful job of decorating, there isn't a lot of space left on the walls for new paraphernalia.  But her students still deserve to let the world (or at least the neighbors) know when they've finished their college applications.  So while we've got a gong our Irvine, CA office, Katie's just installed a smaller bell.  It might not be big, but it still gets the job done

Week #2 of Collegewise counselor training

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

Topics for Day 4: The College Search

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week one of Collegewise counselor training

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blast from the Collegewise past

I came across a file on my computer today entitled, "Counseling ideas" created Tuesday, August 10, 1999–six days before I opened Collegewise.  I remember writing it on the last day at my former job and saving it on, yes, a floppy disk.

Some of the suggestions look pretty dated eleven years later (like asking colleges to mail me applications).  But it's nice to see that we've made some version of all of these happen since then.  And reading it was a little bit like opening up a time capsule.    

Here's the unedited list. 

  • Write monthly newsletters home to parents.  Help them understand more about admissions and why I do things the way I do.
  • Do a lecture series as part of the program, things like interviews, college essays, secrets of admissions, etc. 
  • Student panels–former students who are freshmen in college come back at Christmas and discuss their experiences.
  • The focus of this business should be on cultivating fulfilled students and helping them find the best college for them.  We don’t want students to spend 4 years just trying to make themselves competitive for competitive colleges if it makes them unhappy.
  • Teach basics of the college essay during free speeches.  Show how quickly we can make an impact with smart advice.
  • Encourage kids to come to meetings without parents.  They'll talk more.  
  • Make files for students–maybe include a Polaroid. 
  • Things to have in a brochure: photos of kids/testimonials, big picture of “graduates” of program with their college sweatshirts, let people know we'll speak at PTA’s, community events, etc.  We also have newsletters for teachers/counselors, kids and parents. 
  • Starting in September, request applications from the most popular colleges.  Keep hard copies of colleges' applications filed so you always have the most current versions to work off.
  • Posters from colleges on the walls (framed)
  • At the conclusion of the senior year, have students and parents fill out evaluation form that includes space for testimonials. 
  • Develop a training program for new counselors.  A 30-40 hour rigorous one.  Include a practicum where they complete 20 hours of counseling work with me before they can meet with kids.  Make a manual and materials.  Possibly sell the training program in the future to other institutions.

What do we expect from kids at Collegewise?

A father asked me recently if the Collegewise message was, "It's OK to expect less." 

It's not an unreasonable question given how much time we spend preaching that you don't have to have straight A's, perfect test scores, or a degree from a famous college to be successful.  Still, I think he's missing our point (or we're not explaining it well enough).

I think our message is, "It's OK to expect more."

If you believe that kids have to go to one of the most selective
colleges to be successful, you actually believe that most kids
aren't going to make it in the world.  The most selective colleges only
take about 10% of the students who apply.  So those 10% are golden and the other 90% are bound
to fail?  I don't agree.  We expect more than that.

We expect kids to throw themselves into their classes and try their best, but to do it knowing that scraping out a B in a tough course is something to be proud of. 

We expect kids to develop a love for learning so they have an answer when someone asks them what their favorite class is. 

We expect kids to have enough initiative and gumption to find and commit to activities they really love, not to just plod reluctantly through activities they've heard colleges like.  

We expect kids to appreciate what a wonderful opportunity college is, to be excited for the chance to have four years of learning, self discovery and fun regardless of where they go. 

We expect kids to step up and actively search for colleges that are right for them, not to sit back and be passive observers in their educations. 

And we expect parents to encourage and reward the process, rather than the outcome.  Raising a nice kid who works hard, who's respectful of his teachers, who's nice to his peers, who likes school and enjoys his activities, all of those things are much more important than a GPA, test score or an admissions decision from a particular college.

So yes, we have higher expectations for our kids at Collegewise.  And I think it's good for parents, kids and counselors to expect more, too.