How high school counselors and private counselors can work together

Allison co-presented a session at a local conference yesterday called "It's All About The Kids: How High School Counselors and Private Counselors Can Work Together."  Private counselors can be a great resource for schools, delivering workshops, sharing information, and even training new counselors, but we have to a) earn schools' trust and b) deliver real value through our involvement.  For Allison's portion of the talk, she focused on how private counselors can forge relationships with schools and overcome the (sometimes justified, sometimes not) negative perception that we're all just money-grubbers who make school counselors' jobs harder.

Here were the three most important tips she shared. 

1.  Become an expert at one thing.

There is so much to know about college admissions that while we all want to be experts at everything, none of us are.  So pick one part of the process and make that your "thing."  It could be athletic recruiting for non-blue chip athletes, colleges that give generous aid to first-generation students, great schools for B and C students, etc.  Dive in and become an expert.  You may not necessarily limit your business to this one area.  But developing an expertise is the quickest way to stand out.

2.  Share that information for free.

Once you become an expert, share it with everyone. Go to conferences and present.  Write a blog or a newsletter.  Give free sessions at your local public library.  Make videos on YouTube.  This might seem counter-intuitive to just give it away, but marketing by sharing like this is the most effective way to build an audience and convince them of your expertise.  As Allison pointed out, Emeril puts hundreds of recipes on the Food Network website that you can get free.  But that just makes people more–not less–likely to eat at his restaurants and buy his cookbooks.     

3.  When a high school or organization invites you to share with their students or parents, don't betray their trust.

We've seen private counselors and representatives from for-profit companies who get invited to present at high schools and spend 20 of their allotted 60 minutes selling their service.   When you do that, you've just guaranteed that you won't get invited back.  It's fine to be clear about who you are and what you do.  But that doesn't mean you should abuse the permission the counselor has given you.  If you forget about selling and concentrate on giving a presentation so good that you send the crowd away thankful that they gave up the time, the business part will take care of itself.

For private counselors: If you email without permission to email, you’re a spammer

A close friend asked me if I'd meet with a friend of hers who was starting a business and wanted some advice.  I was happy to do it.  The friend was totally pleasant and we had a nice chat. 

At the end of the meeting, she asked me for my business card.  I gave it to her but politely asked that she please not add me to any mass emails about the business.  It didn't work. 

Since that day, I've received four unsolicited emails promoting their "Grand opening," and all of them begin with "Dear Ladies."  I'm either on a mass email list or I'm a lot more gender ambiguous than I thought I was.  When the fourth email arrived today, I finally replied and asked to be removed from the list.  

Was it worth it for her?

What did she get out of sending those unsolicited emails?  What was her return on the risk given what transpired?  And how will the friend who referred her feel if she finds out?  Will she be inclined to help her again?  Doesn't seem to me like it was worth it.

If you email somebody without permission, especially if you're doing so when you want something from the receiver, you run the risk of looking like a spammer.  If you email the person more than once without permission, especially as part of a mass email, guess what–you are a spammer.  And if you're good at your job, you deserve a better reputation than that.

PS:  Here's a good post on the value of permission in marketing.  And mine about how to write a good email message.

PPS:  In the "You can't make this stuff up" department, when I sent the email asking to be removed from her list, this is the screen that popped up:


For private counselors: Sometimes it’s best to breakup

One of the hardest facts to accept as a business owner is that some people are predisposed to be unhappy, no matter what you do for them.  There is no scenario where you delight those customers, where they sing your praises and refer their friends.  So you spend all your time trying to change a professional relationship that's never going to be rewarding for either party.  When that happens, sometimes it's best to breakup. 

Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, understood this.  Southwest will respond to every letter they receive from a customer, but when Herb got the sense that Southwest and a particularly irascible customer just weren't right for each other, he broke up. 

From page 270 of Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.


One woman who frequently flew on Southwest was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.  She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.  And she hated peanuts!  Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.'"

Yes, you should work like crazy to make your customers happy.  But you'll be a happier, more successful business owner if you're attracting the type of customer who's most likely to be delighted by what you do. 

And if you get the sense that you and a particular customer are never going to have a good relationship no matter what you do, it's best for both of you to break it off and have the opportunity for both of you to find someone else who's a better match. 

For teachers who write letters of recommendation

If you're a teacher who regularly writes letters of recommendation for students, you've probably experienced the struggle of trying to write one for a student who hasn't given you much to work with.  And at that point, it's already the fall of the student's senior year.  It's too late for that student to show you the kind of effort and attitude that would make for good anecdotes in a letter of recommendation.

So why not preempt that problem by telling your students now–six months before they complete your class–what you'll need to see from them if they want you to write a strong letter of recommendation?

If I were a teacher, here's what I'd tell my kids this spring:

I'm happy to write college letters of recommendation for my students.  But this is a team effort.  I can't write a positive letter for a student who didn't earn it.  And since your transcript will show the colleges what grade you earned in my class, there are other things you'll need to do if you want me to say nice things about you to a college.  So here's what I expect from you.  I hope you'll take the advice, but if you don't, please don't ask me to write your letter next fall. 

1.  I expect you to be engaged.  I promise that I'm trying as hard as I can to make US history as interesting to you as it is to me.  So please be nice and act like you want to be here.  Don't just sit there and look bored. 

2.  I expect that you will regularly participate in class discussions, not because you're looking for extra credit, but because you're engaged (see expectation #1).  Put your hand up.  Ask and answer questions.  And be nice to other people when you disagree with their interpretations.  This is what colleges are going to expect from you, so this is the perfect time to start being that kind of student. 

3.   I expect that you will try your best.  The effort you show is much more important to me than the grade you earn is.

4.  Please don't be a grade grubber–a student who cares only about the grade and will complain if you don't get an "A."  I encourage you to set high goals for yourself, but I can only give you an "A" if you earn it. 

5.  Find what interests you about US history.  You don't have to think every chapter we cover is fascinating.  But I hope you'll be open to the idea that you just might have a favorite period of history by the time we finish the year together. 

A 2011 marketing tip for private counselors

If you're a new private counselor hoping to get the word out and grow your business, here's what I'd do in 2011.

1. Pick a subject on which to become the local expert.

Sure, good counselors have to keep learning about all-things college admissions.  But there's always a need for expertise.  What if you made it your goal to become the local expert on great colleges for "B" and "C" students?  Or the best ways for student-athletes to get noticed by colleges?  Or which colleges offer generous financial aid, great services for kids with learning disabilities, or excellent drama programs?  Pick a subject that interests you and learn as much as you can about it.  Become the local expert.

2.  Share your newfound expertise.

A lot of business owners are scared to death to share what they know.  They're worried that someone else will steal their knowledge and become a competitor.  But business just doesn't work that way.  So once you've got your expertise, share it.  Write a blog.  Start a newsletter.  Do a free presentation at the local library.  Even better, propose a session at your NACAC affiliate.  The best way to convince people of your expertise is to share it with them. 

Once you do, they'll come back over and over again.

How to handle “No”

I once received an email from an editor who'd submitted her resume for a job opening at Collegewise, and she did everything but call me an idiot for deciding not to interview her.  When she demanded to know my reasons, I pointed out the typos in her resume.  She apologized, but when you handle rejection that badly, it's over for the other party.

I've written before about how kids can handle college rejections.  But we all face the risk of hearing "No."  When a student applies for a summer job, he might hear a "No."  When a private counselor is being interviewed by a prospective family, the family might ultimately say, "No" and choose someone else.  Independent high schools and colleges hear "No" all the time from students they accepted who ultimately choose to learn someplace else. 

When you hear "No," you've got a choice to make.  You can voice your disagreement. You can criticize the other party's decision making process.  You can get angry, point out every reason why they're making a mistake, and appeal for reconsideration (which almost never works).

Or you could look at it as an opportunity to leave them singing your praises.

You could sincerely thank them for their consideration and for the time they invested in you.  You could praise their decision and tell them that while you're disappointed, you can certainly understand why they made the choice they did.  You could tell them what you learned during the process and what you're going to do differently as a result of it.  And most importantly, you could let them know that you'll still be around if they ever need you in the future. 

The second approach leaves a much better chance of you getting invited back for a new opportunity (or if the choice they made falls through).  You'll leave a great last impression, one that just might lead to them to recommend you to a friend or colleague who might be a better fit.  And you'll actually feel better.

How you handle a "No" says a lot about you.  And it improves your chances of getting a "Yes" in the future.

How to deal with trolls

I get an email about once a month from the same person to tell me how wrong I am about something I've written here.  He never signs his full name.  He's not asking for an explanation or for any kind of dialog.  He just wants to vent.  I know the anger actually has nothing to do with me.  So I read them, delete them and move on with my day.     

The more you put yourself out there to the world, the more likely you are to run into trolls.  Disagreement by itself isn't necessarily bad and can actually lead to a better understanding for both parties.  But trolls do more than just disagree with you.  They take a perverse pleasure in tearing you and your ideas down.   

Find any popular blog or a video on YouTube, and there are always scathingly critical comments no matter how many people post about how much they love it.

If you want to start a club or suggest a new theme for the homecoming dance or try out for the basketball team, somebody may dismiss it as a bad idea or flat out make fun of you. 

The more a high school counselor or a private counselor interacts with students and parents, the more likely the counselor will run into a few who are pre-disposed to disagree with the advice or to be unhappy with the efforts.

Successful people ignore the trolls.  They know that trolls are always out there and they're almost never creating anything great on their own; that's why trolls have so much time and energy to criticize you. 

You have to ignore the trolls.  If you don't, you'll spend all your time hiding.  You'll be afraid to write a blog or try a new idea or do anything that could open yourself up to criticism. 

Not everyone is going to appreciate you.  But those who do deserve your mental energy and time more than the trolls do.

A better way to give feeedback

A lot of meetings go like this:  Someone proposes an idea.  The group weighs in with feedback during which time certain people can always be counted on to criticize, refute, and give every reason why the idea won't work.  Whether you're a student in the Spanish Club, a counselor at a faculty meeting, or a parent at the monthly gathering of the PTA members, the next time someone proposes a new a fundraiser, a different system for scheduling student meetings, or a new way of recruiting parent volunteers, here are two ways to make your feedback more helpful. 

1. Start by saying something nice. 

When you start your feedback with, "Here's what I really like about your idea," or "Wow, that's creative.  I never would have thought of that," it puts you and the person with the idea on the same side.  It makes it more likely that any of your constructive criticism will actually be taken to heart. 

2.  Ask a question.

The best way to show someone you're really considering the idea is to show them that you really want to understand.  So ask a question.  Not a question that makes the person defend the idea, like, "We've always done the same fundraiser and it's great.  Why do you want to change it?"  Ask, "If we were to try this, what do you think some of the biggest advantages might be?" 

Our editors actually rely on these techniques when we give students essay feedback.  No matter what we think of a student's first draft, when we write our two paragraphs of initial feedback, we always start by pointing out what we like.  When we go through the essay and make comments, we don't just point out what needs to be fixed.  We highlight funny sentences, great word choice and effective images, too.  If a student proposes an essay idea that we worry might not be the best choice, we ask follow-up questions to make sure we really understand the idea.  And if sentences are confusing, we don't just write, "Confusing." We tell the student that we weren't sure what they meant and ask if they can tell us more about what they were trying to say. 

When you give good feedback, people will be more likely to implement your proposals.  Your criticism will be received without insult.  And most importantly, you'll be demonstrating to the entire group that you can be counted on to weigh in thoughtfully and honestly. 

Five tools for private counselors

If you're just starting a private counseling business or if you already have one that you're always looking to improve, here a couple tools we use that we've found particularly helpful.  I thought sharing what we've found works might spread the good word about some good products.

1.  Quickbooks

Quickbooks makes accounting easy.  You can invoice customers, track expenses and even accept credit cards (if you sign up for their merchant service).  Here's a bonus tip:  Hire one of their Quickbooks experts to set it up for you.  It's easy to install, but they can help you set up your chart of accounts and teach you how to use it properly.  Trust me.  We had one come visit us for an hour for only $75.

2.  Emma email newsletters

If you want to send out email newsletters to customers or prospects, Emma is a great tool.  You put your text in a template that Emma designs for you and then Emma sends it out.  Easy.  We use something called their "Trigger series" that actually makes all of this automatic.  I wrote 30 newsletters with tips about college admissions, and the day someone signs up to receive it, the trigger series sends one every three weeks, automatically.  You can create your own sign-up screens and Emma handles all the list management so you're not tracking people on a spreadsheet.  And the price is based on how many people you email.  We've got 2500 people on our list and it's still very reasonable.  It's a great tool.  In fact, we're featured as one of their "Customer stories."

3. Typepad

I write this blog on Tyepad.  We had our layout custom designed to include our logo and branding, but you can sign up for a free service and use one of their templates.  People talk a lot about social media and how important it is, but I don't think having a Facebook page or a Twitter account is as important as having something to say that people want to read.  And nothing we've done has helped us build more of an audience than this blog has. 

4.  Google Apps

Ah, Google.  Your Apps program hosts our email (with huge storage capacity) even though it's, not  You let us share documents through Google Docs.  You help us do all our summer scheduling of editors and interns using Google calendars.  And you do it all for free.   

5.  37Signals

OK, here's something that we don't use, but I want to find a way to.  37Signals makes software that's designed to make you more productive.  They've got a project management program, a program to keep track of your contacts and even some free programs like online to-do lists and editing of documents.  They're a good company run by smart guys who are passionate about what they do.  I've read their books and will probably be attending one of their seminars next year, and I'm not even a customer yet.   

It seems like some combination of their tools would be great for a private counselor but I just haven't identified the right way to use it yet.  If you do, write to me at kevin (at) collegewise (dot) com. (That's my cleverly coded email address so the spammers can't fish it off our blog).  In the meantime, I'm going to start 2011 with free trials of their programs (which they offer) to see if I can find a way to use them. 

For counselors: The inalienable rights of students, parents, and counselors

All good counselors occasionally find ourselves disagreeing with students and parents.  And it can be frustrating when you have to argue to get a family to consider advice that you believe really is in the best interest of the student.

But one of our Collegewise counseling credos is that it’s not our job to fight with students and parents.  And we work with that credo by acknowledging that everyone involved, the student, parent and you–the counselor–all have certain inalienable rights.

Students and parents have the right to approach the college admissions process any way they please, even if it flies in the face of your advice.  That means…

  • Parents have the right to believe that personal connections will get their son into the six Ivy League schools to which they insist he apply.
  • Students have the right to write their college essay about whatever they choose, even if they ignore your advice and choose an inappropriate topic.
  • Parents have the right to require their student be a pre-med.
  • Students have the right to apply to colleges for the wrong reasons, like where their boyfriend or girlfriend is applying.
  • Parents have the right to dismiss what might be great colleges for their kids on the basis of what they think is a lack of prestige.
  • Students have the right to delay the completion of all of their applications until hearing back from an early decision school.
  • Parents have the right to choose all of the student’s activities, to select the colleges, and to get way too involved in the college essays, even if their efforts actually hurt the student’s chances of admission.
  • Kids have the right to apply only to schools that are reaches and to refuse to consider colleges that would be safety schools.
  • Families have the right to believe that’s OK to ignore the language on the application and place deposits at multiple schools, thereby violating the signed terms of the application and jeopardizing the student’s accepted status at all of her schools.  Sure, they don’t have the legal right to do it.  It’s dishonest, it’s risky and it’s not something any professional counselor would endorse.  But the family has the right to make their own choice.

But we–the counselors–have the right to respectfully and professionally disagree with all of those courses of action.  The fact that we disagree with each other doesn’t make either of us bad people.  It just means that we disagree.  And sometimes it means that maybe we shouldn’t be working together.

It’s not a counselor’s job to argue with a student or parent.  But it’s also not your job to capitulate and agree to a course of action that you believe is detrimental for the student.  So when you feel the debate coming on:

1. Explain, calmly and professionally, why you disagree. 

A family is under no obligation to follow your advice without explanation.  So explain it to them.  Do so without judgment.  Express your concerns while highlighting that your only agenda is to see this process go well for the student (It’s hard for someone to be mad at you when you’re honestly looking out for them or their kid).

2.  Never debate for debate’s sake. 

After you’ve explained your concern, there is no debating.  They can certainly ask for more information or for your assistance to help them understand it better, but debating for the sake of debate won’t get you anywhere. Remind the family that it’s their choice and ask them what they’d like to do next.  (By the way, backing off and reminding them that it’s their decision is often the fastest way help them become more open to your advice).

3.  Decide what your next steps should be together.

If the family elects to ignore your advice, how will that decision impact your work together?  Can you move on after agreeing to disagree?  Or do you simply have fundamentally different approaches to the process that can’t be resolved.  If a student wants to write his essay on a cliche topic, we can still do a lot of good work with that kid.  But if the parents want to write the essays for him (or if they want us to do it), that’s not something we’re ever going to endorse and we’ll probably need to part friends.