For counselors…and parents…on taking advice

One way to spot a skilled veteran of college admissions counseling is to note how little time they spend trying to convince parents to take their advice.

A parent insists on sending their son to an expensive summer program at a prestigious college over their son’s desire to get a part-time job at a local grocery store.

A family plans to send extra letters of recommendation from alumni they believe to be influential despite the fact that the connections really don’t know the student.

A parent overrides their student’s choice for a college essay topic and argues for a different story about the one day their daughter spent working at a soup kitchen three years ago.

These are common situations for many counselors. But the experienced professional won’t get bogged down in an admissions debate.

A big part of that lack of discord is the counselor’s ability to understand and respond to the family’s needs, to convey the right advice at the right time, and to ensure that the family feels heard even if the ensuing advice is not necessarily what they expected.

But more importantly, good counselors know that it’s rarely good—or effective—practice to spend too much time convincing a family to do anything, least of all to take the counselor’s advice.

It’s a counselor’s job to make sure a family has all the necessary information. It’s a counselor’s job to clearly explain the potential ramifications of a parent’s desired course of action. And depending on the service being provided, it’s a counselor’s job to express a professionally informed opinion and to tie that recommendation to the best interest of the student and the family.

But it’s also the counselor’s job to let the family make their own decisions. And it really should never be a counselor’s job to argue.

Counselors who work in high schools do face situations, particularly where a student’s health or safety is at risk, where they’re ethically or even legally bound to do more than just share their opinion and let the student make up their own mind (and those counselors are well-trained to recognize and act on those situations).

But that’s almost never the case with college admissions.

If you’re a counselor who’s spending more time than feels productive or necessary trying to convince families to take your advice, here’s a past post, with some additional links to other relevant write-ups, to help you address those situations.

And parents, please remember that you have every right to expect that your counselor will take the time to hear your concerns and to understand your point of view. You also have every right to expect your counselor to deliver clear, informed advice about how to help your student get where they want to go. But you should not expect your counselor to necessarily endorse your plan, and you should not seek a lengthy debate when your suggested approaches differ.

If you told your doctor you planned to combat high blood pressure with bacon and inactivity, she would tell you why that’s a bad idea, and she would patiently explain why her recommended approach of a good diet and regular exercise is a better way to go. But she probably would not spend a lot of time debating your differing views. It’s your body (and your bacon) after all.

Counselors and parents, take the time to hear each other, to understand your points of view, and to explain your desired actions. And please make sure the student has the loudest voice. It’s their journey, and their future college, after all.

Tips to help kids thrive

The “Parenting” section of the Challenge Success blog has a downloadable flyer, “Tips to Help Your Child Thrive,” and they include a contact person to get in touch with for counselors, schools, or parent leaders who’d like to order bulk copies. Don’t let the reference to children throw you, as the advice has broad applicability for both younger children and for teens in high school.

Private counselors: Are you worth the wait?

Super chef David Chang runs Momofuku, a group of 13 worldwide restaurants, as well as a bakery and a bar. In the early stages of his first restaurant, he created a pork bun dish that was such a hit with diners, the word spread and people began lining up to get inside—just to get a taste. That’s when Chang found his personal yardstick for a dish—is it good enough to travel downtown and wait in line for? You can read the entire story here.

Chang admits that you can’t always predict which dish will be the hit. In fact, some dishes he’s spent months perfecting never generated a line at the restaurant. Others he whipped up in just fifteen minutes proved worth the necessary wait. The customer decides what’s line-worthy. But the chef decides what the goal is.

If you’re a private counselor wondering how to find more clients, instead of redesigning your website or buying ads or spamming lists in the hopes that people will find you, think about how you can be good enough to get people to drive across town to wait in line for. If you’re that good, you won’t have a marketing problem. Your next customer will be outside waiting in line.

Remember, you don’t have to be line-worthy to everyone in town (Chang’s pork buns weren’t worth waiting in line for if you didn’t eat pork). Maybe people drive across town to see you because you’re the person whose interactions make their C student excited about college? Maybe you get better essays out of kids than anyone else nearby? Maybe you know more about colleges where homeschooled kids can flourish than any local competitors do? The fastest way to become the best in the world is to make the world smaller.

Once you can offer what they’ll drive across town and stand in line to get, you can stop worrying about finding more clients and start proving to those already in line why you’re worth the wait.

How counselors can help the kids who need it most

One of the many reasons I come back to high school counselor extraordinaire Patrick O’Connor’s regular advice columns for counselors is because he reminds his readers that while the over-scheduled but well-resourced student population has their struggles, they’re not the only kids we need to be worrying about. And in fact, there are students whose home lives are so untenable that a summer without school isn’t a relief, but a seasonal suspension of their safe place to go. And once again, O’Connor comes through with great advice for counselors on the front lines with these students in his latest piece, “Summer Help for the Kids Who Need it Most.”

Silence = space for learning

One of Michael Bungay Stanier’s recommended strategies described in his book “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is so simple that anyone can do it. And it can lead to more enlightening conversations with those in your charge, whether you’re a parent, a counselor, or a manager.

Get comfortable with silence.

Stanier’s book recommends seven essential questions for those you are coaching or leading. But in order for the responses to lead to better coaching for you and better learning for them, you need to give them time to formulate their answers. If a question is followed by even 3-4 seconds of silence, many people—and I’m one of them—feel compelled to fill that void by rephrasing, clarifying, or outright starting over with a new question. Instead, just do this (Stanier describes this in the first person, as if you’re reminding yourself how to handle these scenarios):

“When I’ve asked a question and she doesn’t have an answer ready in the first two seconds, instead of filling up the space with another question or the same question just asked a new way or a suggestion or just pointless words, I will take a breath, stay open and keep quiet for another three seconds.”

Stanier argues that it’s during these silences, when people are considering their answers, that they are forming new neural pathways and increasing both their potential and capacity.

Sometimes the best way to create space for learning is to stop giving advice and start listening.

When time to grow is time to go

Patrick O’Connor wrote this post for counselors who are advising underclassmen on their high school plans for next year. But I think parents and kids would be well-served to know how one of the best high school counselors in the business advises colleagues to answer a student who asks a question like the one below in bold.

Do I have to keep up the trombone? This is also the time when students start to evaluate their electives and their extracurricular activities. The cool activity they just couldn’t live without in middle school has lost its shine, but they’ve heard colleges really like to see commitment to some core extracurriculars. They turn to you to know if they have to be miserable for the next two years, or if they get their life back. No pressure here.

In many ways, this is the same situation as giving up French. Colleges do like to see students commit to a few core activities and grow in them (by becoming part of an award-winning robotics team, or getting a promotion at work), but it’s unlikely a student will rise to new levels of leadership if their heart just isn’t into it. Junior year is no time to join seven new clubs—the colleges will see right through that—but if it’s time to grow, it’s time to go.”

When the question isn’t the question

Counselors, many of the questions students and parents pose to you aren’t questions at all. They’re actually introductions. The real questions still need to be uncovered.

Should I prep for the ACT this summer?

I heard that applying early decision increases your chances of getting in. Is that true?

I can’t take AP Bio and the art class at the same time. I should take AP Bio, right?

Wouldn’t it be better to choose UCLA over Colorado College if I want to be a doctor?

Our son needs personal attention. Can you recommend some smaller schools?

They seem straightforward. In fact, they could technically be answered with a simple yes or no. But experienced counselors know that giving a simple answer won’t satisfy the seeker. Instead, veterans will come back with a question of their own.

        Is the ACT the best test for you to take?

How do you feel about  committing to one school?

Do you enjoy your science classes?

A doctor? Good for you. Are you certain that’s your future career path?

Sure, I can suggest some schools. Can you tell me more about what kind of personal attention is most helpful?

Follow a question with a question, and you’ll get one step closer to finding the best answer to give.

8 questions for managers (plus counselors, parents, and students)

Claire Lew’s latest piece, The 8 best questions to ask during a one-on-one meeting, is designed (and perfect) for managers to ask of an employee. But some versions of these questions might be helpful for counselors to ask their students, for parents to ask their kids, and even for kids to ask themselves.

That third suggestion might seem strange, but students, imagine if you regularly considered—and honestly answered—questions like:

How’s life?

What am I worried about right now?

What are my biggest time-wasters?

Would I like more or less direction from my parents or my counselor?

Are there any decisions I’m hung up on?

Wouldn’t you be in a much better position to work towards answers that would make you happier, more successful, and less stressed?

Should learning embrace kids’ mistakes?

The Greater Good Science Center based at UC Berkeley sponsors scientific research into social and emotional well-being, and helps educators, families, and leaders apply the findings to their own lives. Their recent piece, Why We Should Embrace Mistakes in School, shares some compelling findings showing that the best way to set students up for long-term learning and success is not to praise their ability to get the right answer, but to acknowledge and even praise their mistakes along the way.

The notion of somehow rewarding failure can be difficult for many parents and students to embrace, especially when you’re immersed in a college-bound culture that often feels like anything short of perfection somehow falls short.

But if you read the findings with an open mind, you’ll see that the recommendations actually help raise—not lower—expectations, aspirations, and potential. And when kids learn to see the value in the effort over the outcome, they’re better prepared to attack scenarios that don’t have a right answer, and better positioned for a world where there is no such thing as straight A’s in life.