For high school counselors: be selfless, and selfish

High school counselors are a selfless breed of professionals. One more hour of work, one more meeting, one more email or voicemail or question to answer—so often they cheerfully say “yes,” driven by the desire to help the kids they serve. While the uninformed outsider might make a flippant comment about those counselors getting “summers off” as if it’s an easy gig, it’s difficult for me to think of a group of professionals more richly deserving of a break from serving and the space to do what they want to do.

But I also know how many of those same counselors just aren’t wired to trade selflessness for a bit of selfishness, even when given the opportunity to do so. If you struggle with the balance and want to find a way to make the most of your time off, both personally and professionally, here are two past posts that might help: one with my summer suggestions for high school counselors, and another with Patrick O’Connor’s suggestions of what not to do over summer break.

High school counselors, I hope you’re able to do whatever’s best for you to make the forthcoming summer one that recharges and refreshes you to come back to the very important work you do for your students.

Monday morning Q & A: Counseling a large caseload

Jean asks:

“I work in a large public school. My greatest challenge is helping such a large volume of students and parents. Any suggestions on how I can get parents to have a more realistic expectation of their children’s chances for admission at highly selective colleges and universities? I have seen a huge jump in students applying to many highly selective schools in hopes of gaining admission to one. Help!”

Thanks for your question, Jean. And thanks for all your efforts to help so many kids. Public high school counselors are the heroes of this process, doing so much for so many kids that often goes unnoticed.

You’ve actually brought up two separate (but in your case connected) issues: how to service a large caseload, and how to help families make more realistic and manageable choices when composing their college lists. I’m not the best one to give advice around managing a public school counselor’s caseload as I’ve never faced that challenge. But I’ve had the good fortune of observing and learning from some of the very best of your public counseling compatriots, and I can cite a few things they all do to help manage such large caseloads.

First, they set clear and realistic expectations with families about the kind of assistance and attention they will be able to provide. Their tone is positive, emphasizing their commitment to helping kids get to where they want to go. But they are simultaneously clear about the limits of their help, and also those areas where the student must take responsibility and be accountable.

Second, they make a reasonable effort to share the vital information that’s appropriate for broad distribution. Deadlines for in-state public colleges, FAFSA reminders, announcements for available workshops or meetings with the counseling office—these reminders apply to a large percentage of their population. There’s so much more that could be shared that might apply to smaller segments, but these counselors know cramming as much information as possible into their messaging, and doing so repeatedly, can cause families to tune out of incoming communication. For more advice on this, here’s a past post about how to get families to read what you email.

And finally, the counselors who best manage large caseloads spend most of their time with those students who need and deserve their counselor’s help the most. Only you can define who those kids are in your particular student community. But they’re typically kids who’ve made earnest efforts to drive their own process, or who lack the resources at home to do so, or who the counselor has determined will benefit most from the assist. We have a structural problem in public schools when counselors have caseloads of 200 or 400 or 600+ kids. Even a superhuman can’t possibly give every one of those students all the help they need. So when forced to choose, the best public school counselors give the help to the nice kids who’ve done their part before they do so for the students who had every advantage, but then still showed up at the last minute and demanded the counselor drop everything to focus on them.

None of these steps make your caseload any smaller. But it’s helped some of the best and busiest public school counselors help those kids who need and deserve help the most. And I hope it helps you in some small way.

Now, the question of helping families adjust their expectations around their student’s admissions chances at highly selective schools—that’s the proverbial million dollar question for many counselors. But I’d start by identifying what’s driving that behavior.

For example, is it genuinely a lack of information or understanding that’s driving those choices? If the majority of those parents attended a workshop, or read a newsletter, or even met with you personally with the expressed purpose of explaining exactly how selective those schools are, do you think it would change their behavior? If so, then you’re dealing with a knowledge gap that you can fill.

But my experience has been that this type of parent community isn’t swayed by information to the contrary. They’ve made up their minds. They want their student to attend a highly selective college, and they just can’t allow for a college list that only takes a shot at a small number of those schools. If that’s the case, you’ve got a very different issue, one involving parental worldviews that are difficult, if not impossible, to shift. In that case, I’d try two things.

If your families are taking the lottery approach to admissions and applying to as many schools as possible in the hopes of getting picked, again, I’d set clear expectations. Many of those families don’t realize that applications are also work for the counselor to cull and send the necessary supporting documentation. Be clear about how many of those requests you can and cannot field, and the deadlines by which those requests must be made. It’s a counselor’s job to provide appropriate help and advice. But it’s not a counselor’s job to process 25 applications for one student who is not realistically admissible to any of the schools she’s applying to. Doctors, lawyers, contractors, personal trainers—all working professionals have limits as to how much they’re willing to do for those they serve. Counselors deserve to set those limits, too.

The other potentially powerful step you might take is to point out the methods used by those students at your school who were admitted to those schools. Our experience has been that it’s the focused students, not the lottery players, who get accepted to their highly selective dream colleges. If that’s been the case with your population, say so, as directly and clearly as you feel comfortable.

Imagine saying to a family, “We had kids admitted to all of these prestigious colleges that you’re interested in, but none of them took this [lottery] approach that you’re proposing. Are you sure you want to do this?” Some families spend so much unproductive and strategically unsound time trying to dissect and then mimic the apparent strategies successful applicants used. But in this case, doing so might drive some better behaviors.

I wish that more students and parents could see all the work that high school counselors do on their kids’ behalf. Thank you for your question, Jean. And more importantly, thank you for the work you do that matters so much to your students.

I’ll answer another question next week. You can submit yours for consideration here.

Independent counselors: find your business bright spots

Working in the service industry as independent counselors do, we’re sometimes the worst judges of what makes our own service special. What do we do best? Why should someone choose us over the competition? What’s our competitive advantage in a landscape with multiple options for families looking to hire a consultant? We might think we know the answers to these questions. But the truth is that we don’t get to decide what makes us remarkable. Our customers do. So here’s a better path to finding your business’s bright spots.

Listen to your customers when they thank you.

Now that the seniors on your caseload likely know where they are headed to college, have they and their parents expressed their thanks? And if so, what exactly did they thank you for?

Did they point out how encouraging you were? How much their student enjoyed meeting with you? How well you kept in contact with the parent, or established realistic expectations, or exposed them to the wonderful schools they’d previously never heard of?

When a new family calls after being referred by a current or former customer, ask what the referrer had to say about their experience. Whatever the answer, it’s what a satisfied customer appreciated enough to remark to their friends about. That kind of free feedback is more valuable than that from any paid focus group.

If your customers are regularly expressing their thanks, it’s likely in praise of similar behaviors or outcomes. Whether or not you think those characteristics are what you do best, it’s clearly what your customers seem to appreciate about you. That’s your business bright spot. And unless that bright spot is an element you really don’t want to embrace, it’s worth following that strength.

Identify what your customers appreciate most about what you do for them, then find ways to magnify that strength. How could you deliver even more or better versions of what they’re predisposed to be delighted by? How could you incorporate those elements into your website and your literature and your promises?

Sometimes the people viewing us are in the best position to see the bright spots.

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.