Before you critique a student’s college essay…

Imagine a friend asked you:

"I really want to make sure I look nice tonight.  What do you think of this outfit I'm wearing?" 

Do you just blurt out your opinion?  Probably not.  You want to be truthful and helpful.  But you don't want to inadvertently step on a fashion landmine, either.  That's why it's a tricky question, and the best way to gauge just how direct you can be in your answer is to subtly reverse the question and find out how she feels about the choice.

Do the same thing before you critique a student's college essay.

Whenever a student hands us an essay that we haven't seen or discussed with the student before, we always start by asking:

"How do you feel about what you've written?"

If the student tells us that she worked really hard on it and she's happy with how it turned out, we approach it differently than if the student admits that she's struggling and can't seem to make the essay work.

I'm not suggesting you should be dishonest about essays (or fashion).  We've got an obligation to give good advice when a student asks.  But kids are under a lot of college admissions pressure.  And it's important that we don't tear down something they're proud of, especially when they're presenting us with a story about their lives.

For private counselors: Consider the opportunities in the fringes

I was talking with an admissions officer from a highly selective college at a conference last week who’s thinking about leaving her job and becoming a private college counselor.  But she admitted,

“I’m worried that I might be a little bit of a snob.  I don’t think I want to work with 'B' and 'C' students.”

My reply:  “So don’t.”

I told her that there are plenty of private counselors out there who work with anybody who calls them.  There’s no way to stand out by becoming just another one of them.  Why not work with the fringes? 

She could specialize in the type of student she’s excited to work with and then build the service of their dreams.  If she became known as the city’s best college counselor for really high achieving kids who want to go to the most selective colleges, she’d differentiate herself.  People would talk about her.  And she’d be a lot happier.

The opportunity to stand out is by servicing the fringes and doing it better than anyone else.

For counselors: Beware of information overload

We just got back from the annual NACAC conference.  And I’m noticing now that some of the presentations I remember the least about are actually those that shared the most information. 

There is such a thing as information overload.  If you’ve ever read a work-related email that was way too long, sat through a presentation with far too many slides (and bullet points), or read a student’s application that included a long resume, newspaper clippings, and multiple letters of recommendation, you’ve seen information overload in action.  A person can only process so much information at one time.  When you give them too much, they’ll miss your most important points.  Or worse, they’ll get overwhelmed and give up.  Saying too much can be the same as saying nothing at all.

The next time you make a presentation, newsletter, or a printed resource for your students or parents, start by finding the most crucial information you want them to take away.  Be ruthless.  I know that everything you have to say feels important.  But it’s not all equally important.  Prioritize your list.  Then trim it from the bottom up until you’re left with only the most vital points.  More than five will be too many.  Now use your allotted time or space to hammer home those few points.  And just like a good college essay, brevity is a mark of good writing (and teaching). 

Here’s an old post with some specific examples of how you might do this.

How to talk to students about college

I wrote a post in 2009 listing fifty things you can do in college, even if the school isn't a famous one.  Then Katie in our Bellevue, Washington office did something really smart.  She printed it up on cardstock, put a star next to each item on the list that she did while she was in college at Colgate University, and displayed it on her desk.  Here's why it's so great.

Her students love it. They ask her questions about her college life, what it was like and how she met her future maid of honor in the dorms (that's one of the items on the list).  They love that this professional, responsible person in front of them put stars next to "Go to parties–good ones," "Take road trips," and "Eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner."  They get to hear how much she loved her major, how she met her mentor during an internship in the admissions office, and how that led to her becoming a college counselor.  Best of all, they see documented proof that you don't have to go to an Ivy League school to be happy and successful.

High school counselors, what would happen if you put that list up on your desk and were totally honest about where to place the stars?  I guarantee that whether you're 24 or 64, your students will want to talk to you about it.

Parents, what would happen if you starred your own list and shared it with your kids?  What conversations would you have together that you haven't had yet?  Would it help you both relax a little and just talk about college, maybe even get more excited about the process?

Want to find out?

For private counselors: when it can pay to assume the worst

We try to be optimistic about college planning at Collegewise. But there’s one time when we always assume the worst–when a family misses a meeting or two and doesn’t return our phone calls.

Back when I first started Collegewise, a family that had just left another private counselor came to us. They had recently flown to Houston so their father could receive emergency treatment for an aggressive form of cancer he’d just been diagnosed with. And while they they were gone, they missed an appointment with their private counselor. The only phone call they received was, apparently, to notify them that they now owed a $75 fee for their missed appointment. Another counselor’s mistake became a free lesson for us.

We expect kids to be responsible, to remember their appointments, and to show up on time. But when they don’t, we call the family to let them know that we hope everything’s OK. If we don’t hear back from them, we call again and send an email. And if we still don’t hear back, we mail an old-fashioned letter home letting them know how worried we are, asking them to please check in when they can, and to let us know if there’s anything we can do.

97% of the time, the missed appointment can be chalked up to teenage forgetfulness. But we approach it assuming the family is in the remaining 3%. We’ve had occasions where students have been in serious accidents. We’ve had scenarios where parents didn’t know that a reluctant college applicant had been skipping his meetings. And there have even been a few occasions when it was our mistake and we’d written the appointment wrong in our calendars. But whatever the reason, we’re always glad we gave that remaining 3% the benefit of the doubt and assumed the worst.

And once we know everyone is fine, then we can get back to our usual optimistic selves.

The best way to grow your business, club, college, etc.


It’s counterintuitive, but the way to grow your business is to focus entirely on your existing customers.  Just thrill them, and they’ll tell everyone.

Anything You Want
Derek Sivers (Founder of CDBaby)

Turns out that's not just true for businesses.

The best way to grow your independent school is to make your current families so happy they can't help but talk about you.

The best way to grow your club or organization is to make it so rewarding for your current members that they talk voluntarily about how much they love it.

If you want to grow your community organization, make your volunteers feel even more appreciated and rewarded.  They'll tell people for you. 

If you want to have more dates, make your current significant other so happy that…wait, yeah, that one doesn't work.

If you want to grow your readership of your school newspaper, blog or newsletter, write the articles your existing readers want to read.  They'll share them with like-minded potential readers. 

And colleges, if you want more students, if you want more applications from those students who are most likely to enroll, and if you want more donations from your alumni, stop spending so much money trying to find and sell to potential students.  Slash the budget for the marketing consultants and the direct mailings and the branding experts.  Redirect that money towards your existing customers (your current students and their families).  Make them feel so lucky to have found you that they can't help but tell everyone how great their experience is.  That will be worth more to you than any mailing list or social media campaign.

For private counselors: Get so good that they can’t help but talk about you

If you want to start a business as a private college counselor, here’s your marketing plan.  Find one family, a family who trusts you, and do your very best work for them.

Do they love what you’re doing?  Do they love it enough to tell their friends about you?  Not because you asked them to or offered to pay them a commission to send business your way, but because you’re so good they can’t help but tell people about you? 

If the answer is yes, your business will grow.  If the answer is no, you have a problem, one that more marketing won't solve.  It’s that simple. 

The same goes for counselors who are already in business and trying to find more clients.  If people aren’t talking about you yet, don’t waste time trying to figure out where you can advertise to get more business.  Just keep getting better.  Keep giving your customers an even more rewarding experience until they talk about you to their friends and do your marketing for you. 

Collegewise started with just one student (I helped him fill out college applications at the family’s kitchen table).  No ads, no marketing, and really, no formal college counseling program to speak of.  Enthusiasm and care made up for a lack of experience.  And we had over 100 kids in the program less than one year later.

The best marketing is to be so good that they can’t help but talk about you. 

Have a point of view

“We have plenty of haters.  And that’s fine. Because I think that means that we’re saying something and we have a point of view.  I’d much rather be that.  I’d much rather be Apple than Dell.  Who cares about Dell?  Does anyone here have an opinion about Dell?  Like, really?  Who really cares about Dell?  But people care about Apple.  Some people love Apple.  Some people hate Apple.  Some people can’t stand them. I like that.  And I think you only have that when you have a point of view.  Apple has a very strong one, and I think we have a very strong one, too. ”

Jason Fried of 37signals at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business

No business can please everybody.  For private counselors, it’s far better to choose your customers who are most likely to appreciate what you do.  And if they don’t, break up with them.  Part friends and let them work with someone else where the fit is better.

Chip and Dan Heath wrote a great article about this, too.

There is no barrier stopping you from helping kids

There’s no barrier to entry for private college counseling.  Anybody can say they’re a counselor.  No license required, no test to pass, no reason someone can’t hang a shingle and call themselves an expert.  They can also charge way too much and do it all wrong if they want to because there’s nothing to stop them.  That’s the bad news.

But the good news—especially if you want to do this for the right reasons—is that there’s also no barrier stopping you from helping a kid who needs help. 

You don’t need a website to start helping kids.  You don’t need to quit your day job.  You don’t need business cards, a logo, a pricing structure or a business plan.  All you need is one student who needs help.

If you really want to help students through the college process, find one student who needs help and offer it to them while learning together as you go.  Do it on weekends.  Don’t charge much.  In fact, consider doing it for free.  And be honest.  Explain that while you’re not an expert (yet), you’re patient, friendly and organized.  Then be what you promised. 

Help your student research colleges and you’ll learn about schools together.  Be there when she fills out applications and you’ll learn how to navigate through the Common Application.  Help her organize her letters of recommendation, send test scores, request transcripts and decode financial aid paperwork.   

You won’t know everything about applying to college at the end of it.  But you’ll know a lot more than when you started.  And while other private counselor hopefuls were busy making websites and writing business plans, you’ll be in the game.  You’ll have actually helped someone.  And you can grow it from there. 

No barriers can be a good thing for you and for kids.

For private counselors: How to handle questions about your competition

Prospective families will sometimes ask us, “How are you different from (insert name of competitor here)?"  I don’t think it’s unreasonable for someone to ask the question.  But they’re not just asking us about Collegewise; they’re asking us to speak on behalf of our competitors, too.  And that’s not something we can—or should—try to answer with any real accuracy.       

It's not a good idea to speak for your competitors.  We can tell a family everything you’d ever want to know about Collegewise.  And I could give you my completely biased version about why I think we’re the greatest college counselors in the universe.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for me to speak on the specifics of our competitors’ offerings, or to tell you what I think their strengths and weaknesses are.  I wouldn’t want a competitor speaking for us in that situation, either.  And the truth is that describing why you’re “better” than your competition makes you look insecure more often than it makes you look confident. 

So when a family asks us how we differ from our competitors, we reverse the question. 

“Sure, have you spoken with any competitors in particular?  Great.  What did she tell you about her program?” 

From there, the customer should do the comparison, not us.  They can ask the comparison questions, like,

“(Competitor) said they offer career testing as part of their service.  Does Collegewise do that, too?”  (No, we don’t).    

We always encourage families to look around and consider all of their counseling options.  Meet with a few private counselors and choose the one that you and your kids feel most comfortable with.  If they’d like them, we’re happy to give families the names and numbers of our most popular competitors.  But we won’t speak for them.