For counselors: how to help seniors pick their college

With just over one month to go before the May 1 deadline for seniors to choose which college to attend, the dust of  admissions decisions begins to settle and students finally begin deliberating. In many ways, April can be the best month for counselors. Instead of dealing with admissions hypotheticals, we finally get to discuss available options.

While some families have a clear first choice among their college yeses, many do not. If you’re a newer counselor who hasn’t yet experienced the wonderful privilege of helping students make this important choice, here’s a past post, How to help students choose which college to attend, with some ideas to help you guide them.

Tough private counseling love

At many of the counseling and admissions conferences we attend, at least one session will degenerate into a small contingent of private counselors who voice complaints that high school counselors:

  • don’t appreciate what we do
  • are biased against us
  • should be more open to collaboration, like taking our phone calls, communicating with us about our shared students, inviting us to present to their families, etc.

It’s always a small group. But once the complaints are raised, the tension—and tempers—start to flare. I can often see reasonable points from both camps in these debates, but I’ll use my space here to address the contingent I’ve been part of for nearly 18 years—private counselors.

First, are there specific experiences where one or more of those complaints above might have merit for a private counselor? Sure. Many of us have met that high school counselor whose biases run deep, who’s sure that all private counselors care more about making money than we do about helping our students, who acts as if they’d sooner invite identity thieves to connect with their campus community than grant similar access to a private counselor. Those instances are a lot less frequent than they used to be, but they still happen.

But there are some private counselors who never feel compelled to voice those complaints, who enjoy a good relationship with high school counselors, and who are able to work around the occasional bias and still do great work for their kids. What are they doing differently, and how can you do the same?

There’s no quick-and-easy checklist to follow, but here are five guiding principles that, if you stick with them, will go a long way towards winning over the high school counselors who haven’t fallen prey to industry biases or the occasional bad private counseling apple.

1. Give credit to get credit.
The first step towards earning respect is offering it where it’s due. The very best private counselors revere high school counselors for having a much harder job than we do. They counsel the student who’s failing algebra and field the calls from the parent who insists their student be placed in the now full AP class. But more importantly, they are on the front lines assisting students with a broad range of challenges—academic, emotional, psychological, physical, and family–that most private counselors aren’t expected to address as part of our work. And in between all of this, they somehow have to find a way to advise their students through the college admissions process. Private counselors, the sooner you recognize and appreciate the difficult and vital nature of the work our colleagues on the high school side are doing, the sooner you can expect due respect in return.

2. Don’t expect a space on their work plate.
Yes, there can be benefits to private counselors and high school counselors collaborating. But you are not entitled to a high school counselor’s time and attention. Why should it be their job to regularly take your phone calls, to invite you to campus, to help you access, enroll, and yes, even to do a better job for your students? Remember, you likely aren’t the only private counselor in town. Is the high school counselor responsible for speaking with all of them? I hope not. As I explained above, high school counselors have too much to do for too many students. Their job is not to help you, it’s to help their kids. The more time they can spend doing just that, undistracted by other demands, the better. Appreciate whatever time they can give you. But don’t expect it, and don’t assume that their refusal to give any necessarily means that they don’t respect what you do.

3. Don’t make their job harder.
We’ve all experienced the frustration when someone unravels the advice we’ve worked hard to impart on our student. The family friend recommends unrealistic schools. The neighbor belittles the summer plans the student left your office excited about. The parent rewrites (and unknowingly ruins) their student’s essay. Outside meddling often makes our job harder. Make sure you aren’t doing the same to your students’ high school counselors. Start by reminding your student that you do not replace their high school counselor. Encourage kids to meet regularly with their counselors and to attend their school’s college planning events. And most importantly, never tell a student that their counselor is wrong just because their advice seems to differ from yours. In those cases, are you sure it’s not your advice that needs correcting? And if not, assume good intent, extenuating circumstances, or even just a simple breakdown in teenage communication.

4. Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Steve Martin said it. Then a study skills author wrote about it. And any of us can follow it. Great work always stands out. It’s better than any marketing or advertising you could do. If you consistently make and keep your promises to your customers, if you run a business you can be proud of, and if you make reasonable efforts to contribute to the profession and to the counseling community as a whole, you’ll make a well-deserved name for yourself. And you’ll find that more high school counselors start to see you as a respected colleague instead of a suspicious outsider.

5. Grow with good apples.
All professions have their great and not-so-great representatives. Private and high school counseling are no different. You may run across a bad apple on the high school side who treats you unfairly without cause (just as a high school counselor may run across a private counselor who doesn’t exactly make the rest of us proud). When that happens, accept that you’ll never please everybody. Then get back to work earning the approval and respect of the people who matter most—your students and your fellow great counselors.

Better for you and those you sell to

There’s a lot of selling that goes on in college admissions. Private counselors and test prep tutors sell their advice. Colleges sell the features and benefits of their schools. Financial aid advisors sell their value. And all that selling frequently feels wrong in a process that’s supposed to be about educating kids.

But while there will always be some professionals in education who behave like the negative stereotype of a salesperson who’s just out for the quick money grab, many more are honest folks who genuinely want to help families. If you’re in the latter camp, if selling is not your favorite (or maybe even your least favorite) part of your job, if you wish that just being honest and treating people like you would want to be treated should be enough, take 25 minutes and listen to this interview between Seth Godin and the author of To Sell is Human. They agree with you, but Seth’s advice will help you do an even better job…for yourself and for the people you’re selling to.

Private counselors: deal with the real

For private counselors launching and growing their practices, one of the surest ways to distract yourself from making good decisions quickly is to invent problems that haven’t happened yet.

What if the counselor I hire and train decides to go out on her own later?

How will I handle overflow if too many people enroll for our workshop?

What if this price for juniors is too low, I enroll too many, and then I don’t have room for as many seniors later this year?

But none of these are real problems today. They’re tomorrow’s imagined problems. And the thing about imagined problems is that most of them never happen.

Sure, you want to make informed decisions. It’s never fun to have to fix something that could have been prevented if you’d just thought it through. But spending all your time avoiding obstacles that might not ever appear just plants you in a world of stress and uncertainty. And your decisions today don’t have to last forever. You can change them later if you need to.

So deal with what’s real today. You’ll make better decisions. You’ll feel more control over your own destiny. And you’ll have more time, energy, and resources to spend if a problem does present itself later.

Counselors: Try more “Here’s why…”

Counselors guiding students through the college admissions process have to spend a lot of time discussing what, when, and how to do things.

Here’s what you should do this summer…

Here’s when you should sit for the SAT…

Here’s how to plan a college visit…

But if you want your students to be even more engaged, if possible, spend a little less time on the what, when, and how, and a little more time on the why.

Based on what you’ve told me, here’s why a part-time job sounds like the option that would be best for you this summer.

Here’s why taking the SAT this spring will help you make better future testing decisions without sacrificing your time with the swim team…

Here’s why I think visiting these particular colleges will give you a better sense of other schools to potentially add to your list…

Over time, the whys can become so obvious to counselors that we see them as a given. And with both students and parents asking us what, when, and how to do things, we learn that just answering their questions often sends them away satisfied with our guidance.

But families going through this process can become jaded, often feeling like their every decision is measured only by whether or not it satisfied a stated or implied requirement that makes them more college competitive.

That’s what makes the whys so important. The whys rarely stop at, “Because that’s what College X wants.” Whys get to the heart of what’s best for each particular student, not just in terms of getting them closer to college, but also in helping them make decisions that will keep them happy, productive, and engaged. Whys remind students that their high school years shouldn’t only be about satisfying colleges, and that there is almost always some real purpose behind all this college prep.

If you want to help your students be more engaged, try to send them away from your next meeting not just clear about “Here’s what I’m going to do,” but also “Here’s why I’m going to do it.”

Holiday tips for high school counselors

With our Collegewise seniors heading into their holidays with completed applications, our counselors are about to begin a well-earned two-week break until after the new year. Last week, I delivered an internal webinar for counselors about how to not just get the most out of their vacation, but also protect themselves from the worries of work. Some of those tips might also apply for high school counselors, so I thought I’d share a few of them here.

1. Be purposeful with your planning.
If you had to request time off for a vacation, you’d almost certainly plan something worth doing. But a break that’s just part of your work calendar, like this upcoming few weeks for counselors, can be easy to let slip by without enjoying it as much as you deserve to. So take some time to plan what you want to do over your break. It might be a real vacation that you’ve already planned, but it could also just be spending time with your family, reading the books you’ve been waiting to get to, organizing your house or just relaxing without restriction. High school counseling is demanding work. This is your time to get back to doing those things you just couldn’t do as much or at all for the last several months.

2. Celebrate your first Monday off work.
As a specific example of purposeful planning, I’m a big fan of counselors celebrating their first day off work. Like most adults, you probably can’t entirely shut off all of life’s responsibilities for two weeks. But at the very least, plan something for yourself on that first Monday. Some examples from Collegewise counselors include spending an entire day with their kids, booking a massage, buying a gift-to-self they’ve had their eye on, seeing an afternoon matinee, getting a pedicure, or just enjoying a relaxing two-hour date with coffee and the morning paper. Whatever your version of a Monday reward would be, take the time and treat yourself.

3. Communicate conservatively.
Depending on where you work and your particular responsibilities, some counselors may not have the option of disconnecting from their students and parents completely. If that’s the case with you, communicate conservatively. The moment you start replying to every incoming email or voicemail from students and parents is the moment you send them a message, albeit unintentionally, that you are officially on the clock. And that raises their expectations of how quickly and frequently they can expect you to reply to what will likely be further communication. Some issues might need to be addressed right away, but many more do not. I’m not suggesting you intentionally leave people high and dry. But there’s nothing wrong with responding to a non-urgent inquiry with, “This is a great question—let’s add it to the list of things to talk about in January.”

4. Share your struggles and successes.
High school counselors exist to serve their students. And like many roles of service, that dedication often comes without formal recognition or praise. But your family and those close to you can still appreciate what you do if you tell them about it. Take the time to talk with them about your work. Tell them about your students, the challenges you’ve helped them overcome, and the victories you’ve enjoyed together. Most people who haven’t walked in your shoes have no idea how broad and difficult the responsibilities of high school counseling can be. But those who care about you most will understand and acknowledge it if you tell them.

5. Remember how much what you do matters.
High school counseling is a difficult job. But one of the benefits should always be that no matter what happens at work, no matter how stressful or chaotic or demoralizing a particularly difficult day might be, you never have to question the impact that you make. Whatever population you serve, whatever their background or advantages or challenges, they’re kids. And when you’re a dedicated professional who works on their behalf to help them be happy and successful, you’re doing something worth doing. During your holiday break, I hope you take a few quiet moments to reflect and remind yourself just how much what you do matters.

Private counselors: five holiday service extensions

Private counselors, there’s nothing wrong with sending a traditional holiday card to your customers. But there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it, either. And most cards from businesses end up in the recycling bin anyway. So why not send something with more lift and a longer shelf life? Here are five holiday service extensions your customers will appreciate.

1. Pick up the phone.
Yes, much of communication is emailing and texting these days, and it’s a nice way to connect with families. But why not check in by phone before the holidays begin in full swing? You can remind them of final to-dos, offer to address any lingering questions or concerns, or even just wish them well and tell them what the next step will be in the new year. A phone call communicates that they’re not just a customer on a long list, and that you’re genuinely invested in them and in their student’s future. And heading off those questions or concerns at the pass makes it less likely you’ll get a panicked inquiry during your holiday time.

2. Express your sincere gratitude.
Have you enjoyed working with this student? What has impressed you or made you proud of them? What progress have they made, growth have you seen, or potential have they shown? Whatever the answer, write a short card and send it home to Mom and Dad. Sincere praise is the best praise, and I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t like hearing nice things about their kid.

3. Share a photo of a significant senior accomplishment.
Got a senior who’s submitting her final application? Adding their improved test scores to an application?  Clicking “Save” for the last time on an essay? Snap a photo of the moment and send it to the parents.

4. Help your student write a holiday card to their parents.
Imagine a parent receiving a holiday card from their own child detailing what they’ve been up to with their college counselor, and thanking their parents for supporting their college dreams. The card need not be more than a few sentences. But I promise you this will be one card that’s a keeper.

5. Offer a personal gift certificate.
Ask each of your students where their family goes out to eat together, or to name a family activity they all enjoy. Then send along a gift certificate to pitch in and help them enjoy it together. The amount doesn’t need to be big. It’s the (personal) thought that counts.

 

Counselors and teachers: need rec-writing help?

In the two weeks since its launch, over 70 teachers and counselors have enrolled in my online course, How to Write Letters of Recommendation. The video-based course is entirely self-paced—you can watch the parts you need, whenever you need them, as many times as you’d like.

No matter where you’d like some help in the rec-writing process—crafting, structuring, revising and editing, etc.—this course can help you do an even better job in less time.

The course is just $19, and the discount for blog readers expires tomorrow (Friday, November 4). Just enter collegewiseblog at checkout.

All the details are here, and I hope you’ll join us.

Learn how to write letters of recommendation

My first course for our 2016 Counselor Training Initiative is finally here. How to Write Letters of Recommendation, designed for counselors and teachers, is officially on sale. Click here to see the details. I think you’ll find that this course has the power to transform the way you and your colleagues approach these letters. You’ll give your students an even bigger admissions lift. And you’ll spend less time writing, rewriting, and wondering if you’re giving the colleges what they’re looking for.

The course includes videos and downloadable materials, all of which can be completed at your own pace.

Blog readers can save a few bucks by using the discount code collegewiseblog at checkout. The code expires Friday, November 4, 2016.

Letters of recommendation are required or recommended by over 1,100 of the nearly 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. They’re a college’s opportunity to see a student through two unique vantage points—the counselor and the teacher. But they take a lot of time to write, and too often, it’s not clear to the writers just exactly what the colleges are looking for. That answer isn’t particularly complex and it’s not intentionally secretive. It’s just yet another part of the admissions process where some clear, honest, straightforward advice can prevent a lot of unnecessary mistakes and anxiety.

I think this course will give that necessary direction, and maybe even a little relief. All the details are here and I hope you’ll join.

Texting in college counseling?

Many high school counselors are successfully using group texting programs as a way to 1) deliver timely college planning information to their students, and 2) actually get their students to pay attention to it. That second item isn’t trivial. Teens often suffer from information overload, especially when it comes to college admissions. A six-page newsletter, an email they have to scroll through, a 90-minute workshop overviewing the entire process—you lose a lot of students to diminished attention spans. But a timely text that says, “Here’s one thing you need to do this week” stands a much better chance of breaking through the information clutter.

Patrick O’Connor offers up some good advice here on how to do this effectively, including how to incorporate the White House’s new initiative, What’s Up Next?, which sends regular texts to students to advise them on various parts of the college process.