Next for Collegewise: training America’s college counselors

At our recent company meet-up, I announced our most ambitious, exciting initiative in 17 years, one that I’ll be leading at Collegewise in 2016.

We want to help train America’s college counselors.

The background
After 17 years at Collegewise, we’re lucky to count dozens (and dozens) of high school counselors as our close friends and respected colleagues. We revere them for their extraordinary work in a job far more difficult than ours. They’re not just expected to counsel the student who’s failing geometry or who wants to switch English teachers. They’re also on the front lines supporting students who are struggling with emotional or psychological problems, abuse, family upheaval, conflict with students or faculty—the list goes on (and on). Just about every counselor we’ve met is an unrelenting advocate and voice for their student populations. They do more, and they do it better, than most people will ever know.

But where’s the college admissions training?
As high school counselor extraordinaire, Patrick O’Connor, explained in his article, Why You Should Celebrate National School Counseling Week (this is not an implied Collegewise training endorsement by Patrick):

When someone’s life slips or they don’t know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don’t know we’re doing our job, we’re doing our job pretty well. Of course, we aren’t perfect. Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number. Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don’t have as much time to help students as we’d like, and most of us were never — never — trained how to help students apply to college.

Learning on their own
Somehow, with all of those other responsibilities, high school counselors are also expected to guide students through the college admissions process. Yet most were never trained to do that part of the job. They had to learn it on their own, from colleagues, by studying and reading, and by attending conferences. It takes too much time and attention that they don’t have. Not every counselor needs training from Collegewise (plenty of veteran counselors like Patrick now do that part of the job as well or better than we do). But many more are still struggling to learn the complexities of college admissions on their own. We want to train those counselors.

Why Collegewise?
Admissions and counseling training is at the core of our business. Every counselor who joins us completes an intensive 5-day training program. And that training never stops while they’re at Collegewise. From weekly Google Hangouts with each other to discuss their caseloads and timely webinars from our veterans on topics ranging from highly selective admissions to managing challenging families, to annual sessions at our company retreat, we’ve proven to be not just great learners, but also great teachers.

What do we plan to offer?
We don’t know yet what our specific offerings will be, but we’re considering many options. Some will be live in-person, some will be webinars, and some will be downloadable materials or videos. A few examples:

  • Crash college admissions trainings for new counselors
  • Advanced trainings for veteran counselors
  • 1-hour trainings on specific topics like advising for standardized testing, advising athletes, and helping students find the right schools.
  • Lists of our favorite counselor resources
  • Highly selective college admissions featuring our counselors who worked at those schools
  • Counselor outreach training on how to help colleges get to know your high school
  • How to run a college admissions case study night (with all the necessary materials)
  • Ongoing subscription programs for counselors to learn from and ask us questions
  • Letter of recommendation training for counselors and faculty
  • How to run a successful college night at your school
  • College essay curriculums for English teachers
  • Our guide to professional development for counselors
  • Materials such as step-by-step guides and checklists for important parts of the process

No single person at Collegewise is an expert in all of these areas. But we’ve got nearly 40 people at Collegewise with deep knowledge in a variety of different subjects. Our training talent pool is big. Whatever the topic, we plan to put the best trainer in front of the audience.

How much will these trainings cost?
Some will run several hundred dollars. Others will be less than $50. And some will be free. If you’re a counselor in a public school, especially one with a caseload of low-income students, you can expect generous discounts and in many cases, full scholarships. One of the reasons we’re doing this is to help make sure under-resourced students have well-resourced counselors.

Scratching our own training itch
We’re not leaving our college counseling business behind—we’re simply taking a byproduct of what we already do, refining it, and finding a new audience who can benefit. Much of what we create this year, we’ll also use internally. We’re scratching our own training itch, too.

Good for our business
Expanding our training programming to high school counselors is good for our business, too. One of the biggest challenges at Collegewise is that our customer base is constantly retiring. Once a Collegewise senior heads off to the perfect college, there’s nothing more for that family to buy from us unless they have a younger student. It’s much more expensive for a business to find a new customer than it is to sell to a current one. If we can help high school counselors better serve their kids, if we can give them affordable, expert training in areas they would otherwise have to try to learn themselves, and most importantly, if we can do it so well that they ask, “What else can you teach me?”, we’ll have a new customer base who needs and appreciates us, most of whom won’t be going anywhere next year.

What about independent counselors?
Some of our new offerings will be appropriate for—and open to—independent counselors. But we want to stay focused on where we believe we can do our best work for people who need it the most. So the bulk of our training time, attention, and offerings will be for high school counselors. If we can make a difference for them, we can make a difference for their students. And if we can do that as well as I think we can, we can help change the college admissions process.

We can’t wait to start
Nobody helps high school kids more than their counselors, and nobody spends more time training on admissions topics than Collegewise. I am personally excited to do my part to help bring those two groups together. It’s good for us, good for students, and we will work very hard to prove to counselors that we can be good enough for them, too. We’re excited about 2016 and can’t wait to get started.

Interested?
If you’re a counselor who would like to be kept informed of our training plans for this year, just fill out a quick survey here. There may also be special discounts and early-enrollment options for those on that list. And if your colleagues, administration, or district might also be interested in receiving admissions training, please help us spread the word.

Two questions to focus your meeting time

Today, the Collegewise crew will be departing for our second annual company meet-up. Since we work in offices spread out around the country, our meet-ups are the only time that we’re all able to gather in one place. But bringing everyone together is a significant expense, and we’re asking a lot of our employees to be away from home to spend four days of company time. So it’s important to make it count.

When we first began planning our meet-up months ago, we started with two deceptively simple questions:

1. What would a successful outcome look like?
2. How can we drive that desired result?

Our most important outcome was to send people back home feeling like they were better able to handle some of the more difficult parts of this job. A meet-up is the perfect opportunity to put some of our most experienced veterans in front of the group to show everyone exactly how they do what they do. And we scheduled time to discuss a variety of specific topics where counselors can choose which sessions to attend.

We also wanted everyone to leave our meet-up clear on our company goals for this year, and excited about how they could best contribute to helping us achieve them. We’re all in this business together, so we built in plenty of time for our leadership to talk about our plans for this year and to take questions from our crew.

And finally, we just wanted our counselors to leave with fond memories of connecting with co-workers and having fun together. Collegewise counselors work hard, often in the evenings and on weekends. This is a great opportunity for us to get some time off the clock and reconnect with each other. That camaraderie is important, and we wanted to give people every opportunity to relish it. So while we’ll spend a good chunk of each day working and learning, we’ll also be socializing together, hosting a talent show, holding an awards ceremony, and even building in plenty of downtime where we can each spend it however we’d like.

It’s surprising how two seemingly simple questions—what does a successful outcome look like, and how can we drive that desired result—can give you laser focus when planning any meeting or event, regardless of the size or scope. Throughout our planning, whenever we debated an idea of something to do or include, we went back to those two questions as our litmus test. If it didn’t pass, it didn’t make the agenda.

The next time you plan a meeting, retreat, or gathering, start with those two questions. I think you’ll find it makes it much easier to decide how to spend your time, money, and energy.

If you’re curious, here’s our agenda for the meet-up (“CAP,” which is referenced frequently, stands for our “Complete Admissions Program”).

We’re hiring in Palo Alto, California

Collegewise is expanding our work in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we’re looking for the right person to launch our office in Palo Alto, California. You can find all the details here.

While our physical office in Palo Alto will be new to local families, Collegewise is not new to the area. We first began counseling San Francisco Bay Area students in 2013, and we’ve experimented with offices in Mill Valley, Oakland, and Morgan Hill. During that time, we’ve also enjoyed a lot of success with Palo Alto families who were willing to work remotely (the Silicon Valley seems to inspire technological comfort).  We’ve decided to listen to our marketplace, to expand where even more Bay Area families want us, and to do what it takes to become an indispensable part of the local Palo Alto student, parent, and counseling communities the way we’ve always done with our Collegewise offices. The best way we know how to do that is to launch a local office.

Interested?
If you’re interested in joining us to transform the college admissions process for Collegewise families in the Palo Alto area, we’d love to hear from you. All of the details are here.

Be potentially perfect

Any selection process doesn’t just evaluate who you are today—it’s actually trying to predict who you’ll be tomorrow. Will this student make an impact at our college? Can this programmer do great work at our company? Is this person someone I want a long-term relationship with? Each of those decisions is based largely on potential. And potential is often found in the intangibles.

Just because you get straight A’s in high school doesn’t guarantee a college that you’ll do the same once you join their campus. The student council president might never win another election. The starting third-baseman might never play again after high school. Teenage musicians, philanthropists, photographers—who you are in high school is not a promise of who you’ll be tomorrow. And it shouldn’t be—you’re only seventeen.

But the student who loves to learn isn’t likely to turn that off after high school. The student who’s passionate about something in high school is more likely to bring that trait with them even if they redirect it to something different. And a nice kid who gets along well with peers and teachers probably won’t morph into a jerk after he moves into a dorm. Few applicants offered admission are perfect, but those who demonstrate these traits have a lot of potential to be perfect at the right college.

I notice this during our hiring process at Collegewise, too. There’s rarely such a thing as a perfect applicant, someone who presents the impeccable combination of pedigree, experience, and personality to appear as if they were made just for us. It’s a lot more common to find someone who’s proven that they have potential. They’ve got passion, drive, and curiosity. They’ve demonstrated those traits over and over again, even at jobs that they didn’t necessarily love. We don’t know for sure if they’ll be perfect here. But those intangibles are strong signals that they’re potentially perfect. And that’s a good reason to give someone a shot.

Colleges don’t expect perfection. They’re more interested in potential, a sign that you’re bound for great things. Yes, colleges want you to demonstrate that trait with your classes, grades, activities, etc. And a track record of hard work and success is your strongest starting point. But remember that intangibles, the things that can’t always be measured on a transcript or a resume, can be great signs of what you could be capable of at the right school. Potentially perfect tomorrow is more important than perfect today.

We’re hiring college counselors!

We’re looking for just the right people to become the next college counselors in our existing Collegewise offices located in Irvine, California; Austin, Texas; and Newton, Massachusetts. Prior experience in college counseling or admissions is preferred but not required.

If you’re interested in joining us to transform the college admissions process for Collegewise families, we’d love to hear from you. All the details are here.

We’re hiring a part-timer in Bellevue, Washington

Our Bellevue office needs assistance, so we’re hiring an assistant.

Collegewise is hiring an assistant college counselor to help us take great care of the families who’ve hired us, and keep our office running smoothly during our busy season.

Who is Collegewise?
We’re a college counseling company that helps high school students find, apply to, and attend the right colleges for each student. You’d be helping our Director of College Counseling as she prepares “A” students, “C” students, and everyone in between with good advice, organization, and a little cheerleading to make sure everything happens smoothly and thoughtfully. Our goal isn’t to get every kid who works with us into an Ivy League school. Instead, our college counselors show families just how many wonderful colleges there are, helping our students apply and get accepted to schools they’re excited to attend.

What would you say ya’ do here?
This job is mostly administrative, a little customer service, and a bit tutoring. 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.
  • Call students to confirm their appointments with counselors.
  • Help a student understand required recommendations and help get all the paperwork organized.
  • Print and copy materials for a seminar in the afternoon.
  • Work on a research project to find interview requirements for students’ college lists.
  • Review supplemental college essays and provide feedback.
  • Answer the phone when it rings. Make a good first impression. Don’t use phrases like “A counselor will hit you back later.”
  • Review student progress via our application management system and follow-up with any kids who have assignments due.
  • Send out an email reminder to families registered for an upcoming seminar. No spelling or grammatical errors, please.
  • Check our office supply stock and reorder any if necessary.

Who are we looking for?

We’d love to find people who have interest or experience working in education and helping students. But fit is more important than experience for this job. 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. We like working with other people who want to be proud of what they do every day. And we like to have fun here. 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 someone to work 5-8 hours per week, Mondays-Fridays (depending on your availability) from September to early December. There may be an opportunity to do additional work in 2016 as well.
  • 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 to 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 email a resume and cover letter to our director, Katie Konrad Moore. 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. We’ve also got five (totally unsolicited) tips for job seekers if you’d like them.

We hope to hear from you, but if we don’t, we hope you find a great gig someplace else.

Two free admissions seminars for international families

I don’t know anyone more knowledgeable about the intricacies of college admissions and the best ways to help families manage the process than my business partner, Arun Ponnusamy. He’s conducting two free admissions seminars specifically for international families on September 24th and 26th. All the details are here. If you can join, you won’t be disappointed.

Our new Common App Guide is here—and it’s free

BlogAnnounceImageToday, we’re all really excited to announce that our Collegewise Guide to the 2015-16 Common Application—revised and updated to reflect the most recent version—is now available to download.

The big news? It’s free of charge. You can get your copy here.

Why did we decide to give this guide away?
We make our living working with families who hire us to help them manage their college application process. We work really hard to be great at what we do, we don’t charge more than we think is fair and reasonable, and we’re proud of the difference we make for those families. Previous versions of our Common App guide were priced at $10-$15, and we’ve sold nearly 10,000 downloads since we first released it in 2011, many of them to families who likely couldn’t have worked with us because of geography or economics.

But we’re also out to make a big difference in the college admissions world. We want students and parents to have access to good college planning information even if they can’t afford to pay for it. We want counselors and teachers to have more tools at their disposal to help kids get to where they want to go. And most importantly, we want to be a bigger part of those solutions. Between my blog, our free newsletter, and the hundreds of free presentations we give at schools and in our communities every year, we’ve always been committed to this goal. But we can do more, and we want to show the educational community that we’re doing what we can to walk our talk. Giving our guide away feels like the right thing to do.

Here are a few suggestions for how you might use our guide:

Students

  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help. We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  •  If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line-by-line review before you submit.
  • Struggling with just a particular section or two? Our guide can probably help.

Parents

  • If you are the official college application reviewer in the house, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application (kids should always complete their own college applications even if a parent will review them).

High school counselors

  • Looking to brush up on your Common App knowledge? Spend an hour with our guide and you’ll be a virtual expert.
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App? Keep a copy of our guide on your desk (or bookmark the link to save a tree), and use it whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Share it with colleagues, teachers, and students.
  • Post the link on your website or in your student newsletters.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing each of your students’ Common Applications.
  • Share the link with your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.
  • Do you have partners, employees, or interns who work with students? Our guide makes a great training tool.

We’re not sure yet whether we’ll make future versions of this guide available for free, but this decision will stay in place for the 2015-16 version. We’re proud of it, we’re excited to share it with a wider audience, and we really hope you and your students enjoy it.

Something’s coming from Collegewise

On Wednesday, September 9th, I’ll be sharing something here we’re really excited about. We think it will be of particular interest to seniors, their parents, and the counselors who are helping them apply to college. If you’re in one of those groups, I hope you’ll tune in on Wednesday.

We’re building a better website

Earlier this year, we decided it was time for a major overhaul to our Collegewise website. Since our last rebuild five years ago, we’ve gone from 4 offices to over 20, from fewer than 10 counselors to more than 30. But our site hasn’t grown well along with us. It’s not easy for visitors to find what they are looking for. And while we didn’t know what we wanted the new site to do well or how to measure success, we did know it was time to rebuild it from the ground up.

So, back in March, I re-read all of my favorite books and blog posts about website design, most by my favorite marketer, Seth Godin. I put together a PowerPoint deck with my (or really, Seth’s) 12 recommendations, the three most important of which were:

1. The goal of our site should be to please our one perfect audience. We’ll ignore everyone else.

It’s tempting for a business to build a website that will please everyone who might show up. For us, that could be parents, kids, counselors, potential employees, current customers, potential customers, etc. But a website that tries to please everybody ends up pleasing nobody. We needed to identify our one perfect audience and build the website for them. We decided that our perfect audience, the people that we had to please above everyone else, was a parent considering hiring a private counselor. Parents make those decisions within families. Those are our potential customers, and they’re the ones we want visiting us. We could still have sections of the site for other people (like our “Employment” section), but the overall structure, look, and feel of our website had to connect with our one perfect audience first.

2. Every page must have a point.

Why does this page exist?
What are we hoping the visitor will do after reading it?
How can this page convince them to take that action?

If we couldn’t answer these questions, we didn’t even bother building the page. These questions also forced us to be really disciplined. It’s tempting for a company to build web pages with what they think is important. But what’s important to us isn’t necessarily important to the visitor who shows up here. Building what you like doesn’t necessarily get the results that you want. So we used these questions as our guide, all while committing to building a site that looked and sounded authentically Collegewise.

3. Make it abundantly clear on each page what you want the visitor to do next.

Have you ever landed on a webpage only to be overwhelmed with too many options, links, buttons, etc., causing you to bail out and go someplace else? Attention is at a premium on the web. Most visitors won’t spend 30 minutes digging through every corner of your site to find what they want. In fact, most won’t spend 30 seconds on a single page unless they arrive resolutely determined to get something specific. For every page we built—from the homepage, to the counselor bios, to the storefront, we wanted it to be instantly clear what we hoped the visitor would do next.

Since March, Joel and I have been working with a website design company—me writing the copy and preaching relentlessly about the goals, Joel expertly managing the project, keeping both me and the designers on track. The new site will go live this month, and when it does, I’ll announce it here and share some screenshots that show how we tried to accomplish the goals above.

In the meantime, if you or your organization is looking to build or improve your website, here are my recommended sources for guidance and inspiration:

What works for websites today
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/07/qa-what-works-for-websites-today.html

Knock Knock: Seth Godin’s incomplete guide to building a website that works
http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/downloads/knockknock.pdf

How to make a website: a tactical guide for marketers
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/12/how-to-make-a-website-a-tactical-guide-for-marketers.html

How to create a great website
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/10/how-to-create-1.html

The Big Red Fez: How to make any website better
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0743227905/permissionmarket

Polarize me: If you want people to like you, first decide who needs to hate you
http://www.fastcompany.com/59194/polarize-me