For counselors: how to handle parent involvement in college essays

A counselor at one of my college essay workshops last week asked me how to deal with a parent who's pushing her own essay idea on her kid, especially if the idea is a cliche.

There's no magic formula, but here are a few things we do in these situations at Collegewise.

1. Ask the student what he wants to write about.

This is your first step whether or not a parent is getting involved.  It's the student's essay, not yours or the parent's.  But sometimes the student will shut the pushy parent down herself if given a chance.  Problem solved.

2. Don't argue. 

It's not your job to argue with a parent.  It's your job to share good information, to guide and to be vested in the outcome (the last part admittedly being the reason so many counselors feel forced to argue in these situations). 

3.  Tell the parent what you like about the idea.

When you immediately poke holes in the suggestion, it just makes the parent feel criticized (which is even worse when it's in front of her kid).  You've got to like something about the idea, even if it's a small kernel, or just the motivation behind it.  So focus on that part first.  It sounds like this:

"The Eagle Scout project really does show how responsible he is."

"It's touching that he was so affected by his grandmother's passing."

"There's no question he's had a lot of success in Model United Nations.  He should be really proud of that."

4.  Express your concern by focusing on the student.

Be direct about your concerns, but keep your focus on the most likely area of agreement–the fact that everyone involved in this discussion wants the student to be successful.  It sounds like this.

"I worry that if he writes the entire essay about the Eagle Scout project, he'll lose an opportunity to share some of the other great things about him that the colleges won't know already from the application."

"I'm concerned that if he writes about something that happened in sixth grade, they'll like the sixth grade version of him, but won't get the chance to appreciate what he's like today."

"He just doesn't seem that excited about MUN when he talks about it, and he's got so much energy.  I really want the colleges to know that about him"

5.  Remember that parents also have great insights about their kids.

It's easy for counselors to have a cringing reaction when a parent starts sharing college essay ideas.  But while the essays should always come from the student, parents do know their kids well.  And that familiarity really can add some value, especially when parents can share details about the experiences the kids choose to write about.  Our essay brainstorming questions at Collegewise invite kids to, "Ask your parents to share some of their favorite interesting or funny stories about you."  It lets parents be involved without taking over the process, and the students still get to make their own choices about what to write.

One way to make writing recommendations easier

A counselor at a conference I attended recently said she can write up to 12 letters of recommendation a day during her busy season by using voice recognition software.  In fact, she said it was the best $100 she's ever spent.  Instead of typing, you just speak–the software types for you. 

I've never used it, but I did find a review for a popular model here on CNET.

If you write a lot of letters of recommendation, it might be worth the $99. 

Don’t say “we” when you mean “me”

It's surprising how many private counselors' websites use terms like "we," "us" and "our counselors" but never actually reveal who those "people" are.  I'm sure a lot of them are actually one-person shops that want to appear bigger than they are.  I wish they didn't put that pressure on themsleves.  Being small is nothing to be ashamed of.  You can be more personal, more attentive and more responsive to your customers.  You can often just do better work than the big guys can. 

Whether it's one person or 100, people want to know who they're hiring.  If it's just you, why not celebrate it?  Say "Me," not "We."  Come right out and tell people that you answer the phone and lick envelopes and counsel the kids yourself.  Plenty of families will appreciate you for it. 

As Jason Fried writes in Inc. Magazine this month:


Being small is nothing to be insecure or ashamed about. Small is great. Small is independence. Small is opportunity. Celebrate it. Don't hide from it. Businesses always benefit from being straightforward and clear. So don't worry about it. Don't act. Be upfront and honest, and bask in your smallness. It's truly to your advantage."

From "Don't Exaggerate Your Size"

Land the plane

An admissions officer at a conference last week shared a great phrase in a session about letters of recommendation–“Land the plane.”

“Land the plane” is what he thinks to himself when a letter of rec drones on, adding far more words than real information. “Land the plane” is like “Wrap it up.”

It’s important for teachers, counselors and most of all, applicants, to remember that admissions officers have to read hundreds, even thousands of files, every season. They’re only human. They get tired and bored just like the rest of us. So make your letters of rec, applications and essays clear and forceful. Say what you want to say, but don’t say more just for the sake of filling up all the available space. Remember that brevity is a mark of well-edited writing.

And when in doubt, land the plane.

For private counselors: Why advertise?

I can only think of one reason why a private counselor would pay to run an ad in a publication—one of your students asks you if you want to advertise in the high school’s football program, school newspaper, yearbook, etc. and you agree for the goodwill you’ll build.  But don’t get your hopes up that you’re going to get calls from people.

I’ve run Collegewise for twelve years and I have never, not even once, gotten a call from someone who said, “I saw your ad in…”  Advertising just isn’t an effective medium.  You’re paying to interrupt large audiences (who don’t want to be interrupted) in the hopes that you’ll catch the eye of the few members who might actually be interested in what you have to sell.  It works if you’re Budweiser or Coco Cola or Burger King, but it doesn’t work for small businesses like ours. 

Instead of paying money to interrupt people, why not do something much cheaper and more effective?  Like…

1.    Write a blog.
2.    Publish a free email newsletter that people can subscribe to (no spam, please).
3.    Do free seminars at your local library about financial aid or college essays or athletic recruiting. 
4.    Speak at National Charity League meetings, PTAs, churches, etc.
5.    Make videos sharing your expertise and post them on YouTube.  

All of those are free or almost free.  None of them are interrupting people.  And if you do a good job, people will come back to you for more.  Share information, teach people, and build an audience.  It’s better than any ad you could run.

How to help students with college essays without helping too much

Most families who come to us for college guidance are also hoping we can help their student with the essays.  And any counselor who’s done that knows that there’s a fine line between giving good assistance and helping too much.  Most admissions officers expect that students will look to counselors and teachers for feedback and advice.  But they can always tell when caring wordsmiths got too involved and inserted their own ideas and words into the essays.

Here are three concepts we use during our essay work to make sure we walk that line right.

1. Use our “Hidden camera” concept.

When we’re counseling a student, we imagine that an admissions officer from the student’s dream college is watching what we’re doing.  If it feels right on camera, it’s probably OK.  Asking students questions, giving feedback on their ideas, and even pointing out when we think something they’ve shared might be interesting (or risky), those all feel within the rules when you’re on camera.  But as soon as you start coming up with ideas for the student, or trying to change a student’s mind about what he wants to write, or telling a student exactly what to say and how to say it, you’re out bounds.  If you wouldn’t do it on camera, don’t do it at all.

2. Don’t pressure a student to take your advice.

We never pressure a student to take our advice.  If a kid tells me he wants to write the most inappropriate college essay in the history of college essays, I will be very direct about what my concerns are.  I’ll tell him why I think it’s a risky idea.  But then I’ll ask him what he wants to do and let him make the call.  Again, the camera is a good guide here.  Colleges would want you to advise the kid, but they wouldn’t want you to impose your perspective on him.

Also, essay advising only works with a willing participant.  If the student doesn’t want your help, don’t give it to him.  I don’t care what the reason is.  If the student thinks she’s a natural writer who prefers to work on her own, let her.  If you’ve got a surly teenager on your hands who just doesn’t feel like doing the work, you’ve got to let him make that (bad) choice.  If you force your help on the student, you’ll be met with resistance.  But more importantly, no college wants you to care about a student’s essays more than he does.  And they certainly wouldn’t want you to do the work for the student.

3.  Don’t help a student who comes to you with nothing.

I won’t brainstorm an essay with a student unless he’s thoughtfully answered our brainstorming questions (24 questions about their lives, activities and college aspirations that students answer in writing ahead of time).  If a student shows up without responses, I send him home.  If he shows up with two-sentence answers that he obviously completed five minutes ago in the car out in our parking lot, I send him home.   Even if the student argues that she doesn’t need to do the brainstorming questions because she already knows which prompt she wants our help with, we won’t do it.

Students need to earn the right for this kind of help by doing their part.  Colleges are trying to get kids to thoughtfully consider their lives when writing essays.  I want our brainstorming process to encourage, not eliminate, that introspection.  If a student can’t be bothered to take the time to give us responses, that’s OK with me.  But he hasn’t earned the right to essay help.

You don’t have to use written brainstorming questions to follow this.  Just make sure your student come to the table with some ideas of his own.  He needs to have thought about the prompts and what he might like to write.  He’s got to give you something or he’s just not trying hard enough.

Even if you have a nice, willing kid who’s happy to receive your help, if he just tells you he doesn’t have any ideas about what to write, then looks at you waiting for suggestions, he’s putting you in an awfully difficult position.  And you won’t be doing him any admissions favors by coming up with stories for him.

Big news—and new offerings—at Collegewise

First, here’s our big news.  Today, Arun Ponnusamy, formerly of Open Road Education, is rejoining Collegewise as a partner and college counselor.

Who is Arun?
In the last 15 years, Arun has run his own college counseling business, directed one of our Collegewise offices, worked as an Assistant Director of Admissions at both the University of Chicago and Caltech, and enjoyed a stint as an Application Reader at UCLA.  I’ve never met anyone who knows more about college admissions and how to help families navigate it than Arun does.   And I’ve done some of my best work at Collegewise in tandem with him.

What will Arun be doing at Collegewise?
Arun and I have enjoyed collaborating together informally on some fun projects over the last year.  But we want to do more.  We want a family in Detroit to be able to watch my college essay workshop online so I can show them that every kid has a story to tell.  We want the brand new counselor at a high school in Fargo, ND to have the option of completing the 40-hour Collegewise counselor training without ever having to leave her office.  And we want a student in Hong Kong to have access to Arun’s advice about how to make your Common Application a lot less common. 

We believe that every family should have access to the best college planning advice no matter what your budget is.  So whether you just want some free advice from our blog, a little guidance with an essay or application, or a college admissions expert to guide you through the entire process, Collegewise will be here with the best product or person for you.

What do we want to accomplish?
A big impact starts with big dreams; we want to change the college admissions world.  We want Collegewise to help a lot more families make sense of a process that has gotten much more stressful and complicated than it needs to be.  And Arun and I have decided that the best way for us to reach that goal is to work together again—full time—in the same company.

New offerings from Collegewise
Here’s what we’ll be releasing in the next eight months.


Online Collegewise counseling
Students anywhere in both the United States and the world will be able to meet with a Collegewise counselor by video chat.

Is There a Future Doctor in The House?: A Guide to Choosing a College and Preparing for Life As a Pre-Med
A lot of high school students who tell us they want to be doctors are a lot less certain about how to get there.  Our book tells you everything you need to know.


College planning calendars
Want to know exactly what to do and when to do it?  We’ll release the Collegewise college-planning calendars, accessible online so that 9th-12th grade families will know exactly what college planning steps to take and when to take them.


Story Finders: How to Help Students Write More Effective College Essays (Without Helping Too Much)
For teachers and counselors, we’ll help you help your students with a DVD of our college essay workshop plus a manual to show you how we help students brainstorm and edit college essays without hijacking the kids’ process and helping too much.


“Page Turners: How to Write a College Essay"
Just in time for seniors about to start your college applications.  A lot of good kids write bad college essays.  So we’ll show you how to find and share your best stories (hopefully before you write an essay about how a community service project taught you that it’s important to help people).


"How to Make your Common Application a Lot Less Common”
Arun will walk students step-by-step through how to fill out the Common Application, sharing all of his tips to make your application more compelling.  And he’ll show you how to avoid simple mistakes many students make.


20 school specific essay guidelines
We'll choose the latest short-essay prompts from 20 popular colleges and show students exactly how to approach them.


“The Collegewise Guide to College Interviews"
You don’t have to be a suave charmer to have a great college interview.  We’ll tell you what to expect, what to prepare, and even what to wear to your college interviews.


“The Collegewise Way:  How to Plan for College and Still Enjoy the Ride"
It's our how-to book for everything college admissions-related.  From picking a high school, to finding the right colleges, to deciding which admissions offer to accept, we'll share everything we've taught (and learned) after helping over 3,000 students gain admission to college since 1999.

That’s what we’ll be doing for the rest of 2011.  We’ve got a whole list of other projects (like financial aid advice, college counselor training, and college planning tools for schools) in the pipeline for 2012, but that’s a topic for a later blog post. 

Where and when to find them

In just a few weeks, we'll be opening our online store where you'll be able to find all of these new products as we release them.  If you'd like us to tell you when each of these new offerings is available, just sign up here and we'll email you first (before we even announce it on our blog).

So please join me in welcoming Arun back to Collegewise.  We’re so excited to be working together again and to help a lot more kids get into college in the years to come. 

Their bad customer service is good for your small businesses

Bad customer service is rampant today, especially with bigger companies who know they have more than enough customers already.  But that's actually great news for small business owners.  Customer service is one place where small businesses have advantages big businesses don't have.  We can look great by comparison if we want to, and we don't need lots of resources, time, or money to show our customers that we care about them and their experience with us.

Here are just a few easy, open opportunities for any small businesses–from a counselor to a caterer to a cardiologist–to make people happy. 

1.  You can do what you say you're going to do. 

If you promise that you'll have the proposal to them by 2 p.m. tomorrow, get it there by that time even if you have to pull an all-nighter.  Finish the job by the deadline you quoted even if you have to work overtime.  Small businesses don't have layers of people and policies to stop us.  We can do whatever it takes to just do what we said we were going to do. 

2.  You can actually appreciate their business.

Nobody feels warm and fuzzy when an automatically generated email tells them "We appreciate your business!"  Small business owners can look a customer in the eye and say, "I'm so glad we're going to get to work together." 

3.  You won't try to get away with, "We apologize…"

Apologizing on behalf of your organization just shows that no one person is willing to take responsibility for the problem.  When a small business owner says, "I'm so sorry–I feel terrible," that's a lot more sincere than "We regret any inconvenience this may have caused."

4.  You can ask them about their experience.

You don't feel like a company cares about your experience just because they send you an online survey with "Your feedback is important to us!" in the subject line.  But if you went to a restaurant for the first time and the owner called you the next night just to see if you enjoyed your dinner, that would make an impression.  It's easier for a small business to do that than it is for a big, bloated company. 

5.  You can actually care what they think.

When I call and tell the nameless person at the cable company that the technician never showed up today, am I ruining his day?  Is he going to lie awake at night and feel bad that they let me down?  Probably not.  He's got too many calls and too many complaints to take them personally.  But not the small business owner.  She'll lie awake, worry, and work like crazy to make things right.  And her customer will thank her for it. 

Best of all, small business owners don't need a company retreat to talk about doing these things.  We don't need meetings and memos and middle managers signing off on big customer service initiatives.  We can just decide it's important and start paying more attention to it. 

Not all big businesses are bad.   And small businesses aren't immune to bad customer service.  I get that.  But customer service can be a huge advantage for small businesses if we do it right. 

A marketing lesson from college essays

If a student does these three things when writing a college essay, the finished product will almost certainly help her stand out to colleges that fit her.

1.  Don't try too hard to impress–just be yourself and tell the truth.

2.  Sound like you.

3.  Tell a story only you could tell.  Don't rely on generalities or vague abstractions.

Turns out that's great advice when marketing just about anything.

Whether you're a private counselor marketing your services, a college marketing your school, or a job seeker marketing yourself to future employers, do those three things.  Be honest about who you really are.  Don't publish a website or print a brochure or write a cover letter that sounds the same as everybody else's.  Use enough detail so that it could have come from only you.

You won't stand out to everyone.  But you'll attract the attention of the people most likely to appreciate the real you.

A conference idea for counselors

If you're a counselor who regularly attends conferences, you know how much time, money and energy you're expending to be there.  But is it worth it? If you're not sure, maybe you can approach conferences a little differently to make them more worth your while?

If you think back to the last conference you attended, what do you remember most?  Chances are, you probably remember 1) What you learned that you're actually still using in some way today, and 2) specific interactions with fellow counselors.  It's the chats where you learned from each other or swapped stories about the students you work with or just bonded over the joys and challenges of your jobs.

I think you get a lot more out of conferences if you maximize those two things–learning things you can actually take back and use, and having productive, fun interactions with colleagues. 

So the next conferences you attend, engineer it around those two goals.  Here's how. 

1.  First, decide before you even attend that you're going to bring back three things that change the way you do your work every day.  It might be one idea or a total redesign of how you do what you do–it doesn't matter.  But resolve to find three of them and spend your entire time at the conference looking for those three things.  

2.  Make a point of sharing your three discoveries with anyone who might benefit–co-workers, students, parents, etc.  Pass along your new knowledge and the benefit of attending increases exponentially. 

3.  While you're at the conference, have as many real interactions as possible. Go to the social events, meet people you haven't met yet, or just spend more quality time with people you see every day.  I'm not suggesting that you have to schmooze and network if that's not your style.  I just mean that if we're going to spend time at a conference, we should put ourselves into conversations we enjoy.  

Going to a conference is a lot like going to college; you have a lot to do with how much you get out of it.