College counseling lessons from a (Dallas) Maverick

Long before he owned the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban started MicroSolutions, a software reseller and system integration company, out of his apartment, a business he later sold for six million dollars.  He had this to say about what he did to become successful. 

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I read every book and magazine I could….One good idea that lead to a customer or solution and it paid for itself many times over…Everything I read was public. Anyone could buy the same books and magazines. The same information was available to anyone who wanted it. Turns out most people didn’t want it.  Most people won’t put in the time to get a knowledge advantage.  To this day, I feel like if I put in enough time consuming all the information available, particularly with the net making it so readily available, I can get an advantage in any technology business. Of course my wife hates that I read more than 3 hours almost every day, but it gives me a level of comfort and confidence in my businesses. At MicroSolutions it gave me a huge advantage. A guy with little computer background could compete with far more experienced guys just because I put in the time to learn all I could…I can remember vividly people telling me how lucky I was to sell my business at the right time…Of course, no one wanted to comment on how lucky I was to spend time reading software manuals, or Cisco Router manuals, or sitting in my house testing and comparing new technologies, but that’s a topic for another blog post."

That's a lesson we learned from great college counselors, too.  We train our new counselors, even those who were admissions officers before joining Collegewise.  We read books about college admissions. We read blogs.  We go to conferences.  We visit colleges while we're on vacation.  We do a senior season debrief every year where we analyze our seniors' results.  And we stay in touch with our former students so they can tell us about their college experiences.

Whether you're a private counselor, a high school counselor, or someone looking to join one of those ranks, there has never been more information available about colleges and how to help students find and attend them.  We know there's no way we could ever know everything.  But we also know that whether or not we're trying to learn it is one of the things that separates great counselors from average counselors. 

Join me at a NACAC Affiliate conference near you

I'm hitting the road this spring to deliver my college essay workshop for counselors at the following NACAC affiliate conferences:

Texas      4/3 – 4/5
Missouri   4/10 – 4-12
Ohio        4/10 – 4/12
Iowa        5/15 – 5/17
Minnesota  5/15 – 5/16
*Pacific Northwest  5/18 – 5/20
Wisconsin 5/19 – 5/20
New York  6/7 – 6/10
New England 6/8 – 6/10

*This one will feature Katie Konrad Moore from Collegewise Northwest

Here's the session description:

Page Turners:  How to Help Students Write More Effective College Essays

How can you help students write more effective college essays without helping too much?  Can you get them past “Life Lessons Learned from Football,” or “Volunteering at The Blood Drive Taught Me The Importance of Helping Others,” even if you have a large caseload?  I’ll share a college essay workshop that has helped over 3,000 students find their best stories without putting undue strain on counselors.  No sales pitch and no strings attached.  Just take it and use it in whatever way will help your kids. 

If you're at one of the conferences, I hope you'll stop by and say hello. 

Teaching college essays in the classroom

A lot of well-meaning English teachers assign a college essay in the spring of the junior year.  It’s great planning in theory because it lets students complete an essay well in advance of applications.  But in practice, most students won’t take it as seriously as they should.  Until the application deadline is facing them, the exercise doesn’t feel real.  I’ve met so many students who admit that “…the essay I wrote in my English class, I did the night before.”   I don't necessarily blame students, but I hate to see English teachers or counselors waste time like that.

So here’s what I’d do.  First, do the lesson in the fall of the senior year.  Let each student pick one 500-600 word (that’s the typical word limit for long essays) essay prompt from a college of their choice.  They have to submit that essay to you by the due date, and the essay must contain both the prompt and the word limit at the top of the page.

Now the exercise is real.  They get to pick the college. They get to pick the essay.  And they know that this essay is the very same one they will eventually be submitting with their application. 

I’ve found that students take this much more seriously when the deadlines are approaching.  They’ll appreciate and benefit from the feedback even more.  And you’ll get more (well deserved) credit from parents for being there when the student really needed help.

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:

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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.


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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.