Pressure off, focus on

Patrick O’Connor always seems to show up for counselors and students with just the right message at just the right time. And his latest post for counselors, “Talking to Anxious Juniors About College,” is no exception. If you feel juniors ratcheting up the panic around their impending process, his recommended messaging will take some pressure off (but keep their well-intentioned college planning focus on).

If this were on the news…

The recent college admissions bribery scandal was a story fit for every outlet from the headline news to the tabloid press. Big bucks paid under the table. Nefarious practices exposed. Celebrities busted. For independent counselors, it’s easy to shake our heads and assure ourselves and our customers that we’re playing it straight and offering honorable advice. For most of us, that’s true. The swindler at the heart of this scam was an outlier, which is exactly what made the story so press worthy.

But it’s also a great opportunity to look at your own practice and ask, “What if this were on the news?”

The promises you make to families. The help you offer to students with their essays. The messages you send to students about their journey to college. What if a news outlet showed up and wanted to cover all of it? What if they wanted to watch you work, to interview your customers, to review your practices, processes, and outcomes?

Would you welcome the invitation, confident that an accurate, unvarnished representation would only be good for business?

And if not, what changes would you need to make to welcome that invitation to be on the news?

Counselors always find a way

It’s hard for me to think of a more consistently vocal champion for high school counselors than Patrick O’Connor. That’s why I always enjoy when he pens a post advising his fellow professionals in the field. Patrick treats counseling like an art and counselors as the artists deserving of respect, attention, and support. Every counselor faces challenges unique to their school, constituency, and caseload. But Patrick has seen and experienced enough in his storied career to somehow make his advice applicable in some way to just about anyone generous enough to do this important work in the high schools.

His most recent piece, “How are your Seniors doing?” advises that counselors schedule some lunches with groups of seniors, maybe with the sponsorship of a local pizza joint. Now, it would be easy to dismiss his advice with totally legitimate counters:

Lunch is my time, the only time I get to myself during the day.

Who has space to eat lunch with seniors? Every lunch is a working lunch for me.

I have too many kids to serve, and not enough funding to serve them, to set up pizza parties during the school day.

But you don’t need sponsorship, pizza, or even long lunches to embrace the overarching message. As Patrick puts it:

“Right now, seniors and counselors are stuck in a rut of the mundane. As usual, the answer to getting back in high gear lies in supporting one another. You can find a way.”

Independent counselors: Why do customers choose the competition?

If you’re an independent counselor looking to build your customer base, here’s a counterintuitive exercise. Imagine a customer who chose the competition instead of you. Then spend an hour writing an explanation—from the customer’s point of view—about why they did so. It’s even more powerful if you write it in the first person.

This is an exercise in empathy. It doesn’t work if the answer is entirely about features and benefits. And it won’t work if you discount the customer as being uninformed or otherwise flawed. That might seem true to you, but it’s not the reality that matches their world view (if it were, they would have made a different choice). So assign the most noble intentions you can, and try to be as genuine as possible.

Some examples:

I liked you, and my student liked you. But all my friends go to the competitor down the street. If I follow them, no matter what happens, they’ll never judge me or say I made the wrong choice.

Your office felt fun, informal, and almost frivolous. I want my child to take their college planning more seriously, not less so. I didn’t get the sense you were going to drive that change.

I know you’re the most popular counselor in town. You don’t need our business, and I felt that from you when we met together. I don’t want my kid to be just another student on a counselor caseload. I need this to matter more than it seemed to matter to you.

It’s really difficult to do this well. You’ve got to put yourself inside someone else’s head, take on their world view, and express how they saw you and your business. But if you can do it, it will open up all kinds of insights about why people who go elsewhere make that choice.

And here’s the key. If you can get really good at understanding why people go elsewhere, you can get even better at identifying, attracting, and delighting the people who are more inclined to choose you.

Leave them better off

I’ve never seen private college counseling as a competition between businesses. There are plenty of kids applying to college, and for those who want to pay for assistance, the more good options they have, the better. That’s why Collegewise doesn’t try to stop competitors from joining our free webinars, attending our sessions at conferences, or downloading our free materials. We can all learn, share, and work together to make our profession better.

And sometimes making the profession better means pointing out areas where those in the profession need to be better.

This week, my colleagues and a number of counselors and admissions officers in our industry were chagrined to see a competitor charging $2500 for a “Postmortem Evaluation.” The email, which appears to have been sent to a potential customer who then shared it with the headline, “Um, no thanks,” promises the buyer will “…come away with a firm understanding of why you didn’t get in early and what needs to be changed the regular decision round so you’ll have a better result to earn admission to the best school possible” (worth noting that I cleaned up several punctuation and capitalization issues in the email).

Can a qualified counselor review a previously submitted application and point out areas of potential improvement for future submissions? Yes. Collegewise works with families who approach us for that kind of feedback. But “postmortem” seems extreme. Let’s not compare a college denial with death.

More troublingly, this competitor can’t tell any student why they weren’t admitted to a college. And neither can we. We can hypothesize. We can make educated guesses based on years of experience. Your high school counselor can almost certainly give you the same feedback, and in fact, they often have even more insight because they can talk to the college. But I’m not sure any of us can offer a “firm understanding” of the specific reasons for the denial.

The only people who can tell you with certainty why you weren’t admitted to a college are the admissions officers who read the file, who were part of the discussion, and who were in the room when the decision was made. And even if they were available for hire to tell you, they often would not be able to point to specific shortcomings that can be fixed. The applicant pools at some schools are so competitive that you can be turned away having done nothing wrong, and even having done everything right.

It wouldn’t have been that hard to tell this student something like:

“If you’d like to engage our services for some feedback on your application, especially the kind that you might be able to use for your remaining apps, we’d be happy to help. But I should tell you that the fact you got deferred doesn’t necessarily mean that you did anything wrong. At competitive schools like this, students often get deferred when their application and essays really were the best reflections of them. If that’s the case, we’d tell you so, and we’d give you your money back. I’d hate to see you make changes if what you have is already great.”

Fellow counselors, let’s all remember that we’re dealing with teenagers who are immersed in a process that has become unnecessarily high-stakes and infused with pressure. Let’s remember that we owe it to them to know what we’re talking about and to be honest when we don’t have the knowledge they’re seeking. And most importantly, let’s try to leave those families we engage with better off than when they arrived, whether or not they decide to hire us.

Private counselors: What’s on your “No” list?

Private counselors, like many professionals that deal with clients, often end up accepting whatever customers—and their associated behaviors—that come their way. This is especially true when you’ve got financial responsibilities at home and additional expenses at work, like office rent, insurance, or salaries for your employees.

But as difficult as it might be to do, it’s important to create a “No” list. These are the clients, the behaviors, the scenarios that you do not allow in your practice. There’s no standard, professionally accepted list of what belongs in this category. So you should base this on those areas that weaken you, that don’t allow you to do your best work for people who are predisposed to appreciate it.

A few areas to consider:

What expectations would make you turn away a potential customer and send them to a competitor?

When will you not be available to your clients?

What services will you not provide at any price?

What would a client need to do for you to fire them?

What will you never do in support of a student’s college candidacy?

If you have trouble coming up with a list, try a different method. If you could go back in time and replace any of your current families with others, would you do it? If so, what behaviors, requests, or other factors would make you want to release those folks? And what would you look for in those families who replaced them?

The first step to getting more of the latter is to have fewer of the former.


If you have a student, colleague, or friend who’s always late and leaves you waiting, here’s a technique that may change their behavior. The day before your next scheduled meeting together, just ask, “Will you be late tomorrow?”

Most people can’t bring themselves to answer yes to that question. But just considering the question at all makes them examine what they’re doing and consider what kind of behavior they want to model. Psychologists call this “self-persuasion,” and it’s surprisingly effective.

We’re more likely to persuade ourselves to change than we are to be persuaded.

What’s most likely to motivate?

Parents and counselors, if a student is having trouble finding the motivation to make progress on their college applications, give motivational interviewing a try.

Motivational interviewing is a therapeutic technique to get patients to discover their own motivations for making a change–one that’s even been shown to be effective in the treatment of addiction. Here’s how to use it in practice.

Ask the student, “On a scale of 1-10, how motivated are you to work on your college applications?”

Chances are that the student will respond with a low score. Let’s say the student answers, “I’m a 3.”

Then ask the student, “Why aren’t you a 2 or a 1?”

Then the student begins to explain their reasoning. Maybe they’re excited about the colleges on their list, maybe they’ve already finished two of the applications and just need to keep going on the rest, maybe they have a good idea for an essay but just haven’t started it yet. Whatever their reasons are, accept them.

In explaining their self-reported score, the student is connecting with their autonomous motivations, those that aren’t handed down from others. Plenty of research (and common sense) has shown that motivation that comes from within is a lot more effective than that from an outside source.

And speaking of coming from within, students, you don’t need a parent or counselor to use the technique on you. You can use it on yourself. Give yourself a 1-10 score on motivation, and then really think about the reasons your score isn’t lower. Chances are, you’ll start connecting with what’s most likely to motivate you.

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.