Ask Collegewise: How do I get started as a private counselor?

Liz asks :

I’m interested in becoming a private college counselor but I don’t have any experience.  Can you recommend some of the best ways to learn more about this field so I can get started?

There are a lot of ways you can learn more about college admissions.  Read books.  Go to conferences.  Read blogs like ours, or this one.

There are also a number of college counseling certification programs (many of which are offered online) that you could consider, like those at UCLA or UC Berkeley.

You can also learn about college counseling by actually helping counselors.  Why not contact a high school in your area and offer to volunteer your time as an administrative assistant to the counseling staff?  If you have a full time job and can’t be there during the day, offer to help them organize their college nights or to proofread their monthly newsletter.

You could also volunteer your time to programs that assist students, like College Summit.

Like any field, it’s going to take some time for you to develop an expertise.  But there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for people who want to help kids and are willing to put the time in to be great at it.

Thanks for your question, Liz.  If you’ve got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com.

For counselors: Share your concerns with parents

When you're working with a student but find yourself on opposite sides of an issue with the parent, a good way to get back on the same side is to share your concerns rather than to debate.

For example, imagine a parent wants her student to add several more highly selective colleges to a list that you feel already has too many reach schools.  If you tell her that this is a bad idea, if you share statistics to show her that these are reach schools, if you tell her that her son has too many reach schools and needs to find some more realistic options, it creates a conflict.  It doesn't matter how gentle you are in your communication.  Even though you're confident in the advice you're giving, she hears you dismissing her request and maybe even feels like you aren't supporting her son.

Instead, just tell her what your concerns are.

"Dan is a good kid and he's worked hard.  He deserves to get a lot of acceptances and to have college choices he's excited about next spring.  But he's got a lot of reach schools on this list right now.  And if we add more, my concern is that he'll receive too many rejections and not enough acceptances.  And I don't want to see that happen to him."

Now she hears that you're just trying to protect her son from too much disappointment.  She's going to want the same thing.  Sharing your concerns instead of trying to win a debate puts you back on the same team.  Now you can work together find a solution that's best for her son. 

Sometimes parents make suggestions about what their kids should be writing in their college essays.  If you're worried that the parents' suggestions wouldn't serve the student's best interest, don't dismiss the idea.  Don't create an argument.  Just tell the parent what your concerns are.  

"I understand your suggestion and I actually agree with you that it could be an interesting story.  But sometimes parents notice things about their kids that kids don't notice about themselves.  Stephen didn't mention the community service experience as being important to him.  When I asked him about it, he didn't seem to have much to say.  I want the admissions officers to get to know the enthusiastic, likeable
kid that I know. My concern is that if we push him to write about community service, his heart won't be in it and they won't get to see the same kid that we see."

We teach our counselors at Collegewise that it's virtually impossible for a parent to be upset with you when you are genuinely, dutifully looking out for the best interest of their student.  Even if a parent disagrees with your recommendation, if they know that you're personally invested in the success and happiness of their student, they'll be appreciative of your intentions.

Ask Collegewise: Where do you get your admissions information?

Connie asks:

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I'm curious where you guys get your admissions information…Are admissions officers willing to speak with you?  Or do you visit the campuses yourself?  It seems like there would be a lot of colleges to keep up with and I'm wondering if/how you guys manage to do it." 

We get our information from a lot of different sources.  We do talk to admissions officers, but we try to keep in mind that it's really not their job to help us understand admissions better.  And we do visit campuses to see for ourselves what they're like before we recommend them to our students. 

Still, there's no way you could learn everything you need to know by just doing those two things.  So in no particular order, here are some of the sources from which we regularly get admissions information. 

1. Our Collegewise training program.

Every counselor we hire goes through out 40-hour training program that includes a day-long final exam at the end.  And we update that training each time we do it.

2. Books

There are several great books that can teach you a lot about how admissions works. 

3.  Conferences

We attend local and national conferences.  This is one of the best ways to stay up-to-date with major changes in admissions–those kinds of things are always discussed at length at these conferences.

4.  Press and blogs

Another great way to keep up with the latest in college admissions is to set Google news alerts so you'll automatically be notified when the press covers admissions-related news..  We also read several good blogs regularly. 

5.  Each other

One of the nice advantages for us is that we have four offices in four different states.  So if one of our Californian students is interested in University of Rhode Island (where not a lot of CA kids apply), we can call one of our counselors on the East Coast and they'll tell us what kind of student is a good fit for that school.   

There are lots of other places to get good information (and the best counselors always seem willing to seek that information out).  But those are the five sources we rely on the most.  Thanks for your question, Connie.

If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com

For private counselors: here’s where to focus your marketing

My friend Mike started a college counseling business this year.  He's
doing well–he's got 20 kids, he's busy, and most
importantly, he's enjoying himself.

I saw him today and he
lamented that he wasn't being as diligent in his marketing efforts as he
should be.  He's just too busy working with his existing client base. 
My advice?

Forget about marketing.  I told him to take the
time and money he would have spent chasing new business and spend it
instead on giving his current customers an even better experience.

It
is exponentially more expensive to find and sell a brand new customer
than it is to secure repeat business.  All of those customers have
friends they could refer.  A lot of them have younger children.  And
since they're your customers already, you don't have to spend time and
money to find them.  Just spend the money to keep winning them over. 

Here's how that math looks.   Let's assume your program costs $2500. 

You get 1 customer @ $2500 and work like crazy to delight them…..$2500

That family has a younger child who later enrolls with you……..$2500

The family also refers two of their friends  ……$5000  ($2500 x 2)

Each of those families refers one of their friends….$5000   ($2500 x 2)

One of those referred families later enrolls a younger child…..$2500

                                                                                                        = $17,500

So
one of your existing customers who paid you $2500 could actually be
worth close to $20,000.  What would happen if you ran a program that
made all of your customers that happy?

You wouldn't have to worry
so much about finding new business.  And you'd have a constant stream
of referred prospects who are predisposed to like what you do.

You're still marketing–you're just doing it to your existing audience.

Ask Collegewise: Marketing mistakes?

Katie asks:


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What's the biggest waste of marketing money you've ever spent?

Well, that's an easy one. 

In 2004, we developed a new college admissions class we were really excited about.  We spent $10,000 to 1) purchase a mailing list, 2) design expensive brochures, 3) drop a direct mailing, and 4) build a storefront for our website so people could enroll online.  9 people signed up for the class (at $295 a piece).  You don't need an MBA to do that math and realize that we made a huge marketing mistake.

The class was (and still is) a great product.  The mistake we made was thinking we could buy peoples' attention with traditional marketing methods (and waging a $10,000 bet it would work).  That's the most expensive–and least effective–way to generate interest in your counseling services.  Very few people will see an ad or receive a piece of mail and decide to buy college counseling because of it. 

Tough lesson learned:  You can't buy an audience's interest.   

Knowing what I know now, I would have first offered the class at a reduced rate to friends of our existing customers, something they could "give" to people to get a little taste of what we do at Collegewise.  I would have offered it on campus at the high schools where we had good relationships with the counselors, split the profits with the school (so we'd both win), and maybe let them choose 1-2 deserving kids to attend on scholarship.  I would have done the same thing with the test prep companies we enjoy a good relationship with, and leveraged their permission by having them announce it to their customers. 

So yes, it was a $10,000 mistake, one I'll be careful not to make again.

 

Want to help kids get into college?

For the last five years, our counselors have been volunteering at College Summit, a program that helps under-resourced students apply and get accepted to college. And one of the things I like best about them is that you don't need any experience with college admissions to volunteer.

Each workshop is staffed by experienced college counselors who handle the admissions advising.  But volunteer "writing coaches" help the students find their best stories for college essays.  College Summit trains you in their system, so you don't need any experience with college admissions, teaching, writing or editing.  All you need is a willingness to help and a desire to do a good job.  At the workshops I've attended, the writing coaches have ranged from a high school English teacher, to a retired police officer, to a director of a Jewish community center, to an engineer for the city of Los Angeles.

So if you're a counselor, you can lend your college counseling skills to a group of kids who really need them.  But if you've never been involved with the college admissions process and would like to do something to help good kids find their way to college, look into being a writing coach.  You can find out more about all of College Summit's volunteer opportunities here.

I think every teacher should read this book

TeachWithYourStrengths I don't like most career/personality tests.  Maybe that's because the one I took at school when I was sixteen told me I should be a mortician (I swear I am not making that up).  I think most of those tests are blunt instruments that either tell you what you already know about yourself, or give you results that you can't really use.

But I feel a lot differently about the Gallup Organization's "StrengthsFinder" test.  I've taken it, all the Collegewise counselors have taken it, and I made all my friends and family members take it.  I've yet to recommend it to a single person who wasn't fascinated by their results.   

And they have a version that's specifically for teachers. 

What are strengths?

Gallup defines strengths as natural recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.  The StrengthsFinder test identifies your top five strengths and describes exactly what they mean.

For example, the test won't just tell you you're outgoing (if you're outgoing, you know that already).  It's more specific than that.  It will tell you if your strength is winning new people over, or developing deeper relationships with people you already know, or gaining the respect of those you admire, or appreciating what is unique about each individual, or bringing people together so everyone feels included.  You're more than just outgoing.  Each of those is a very different and uniquely valuable strength.  You might have one but not the others. 

Or maybe your strength is a sense of confidence in yourself, or an ability to arrange and manage complex situations, or a desire to continually learn new information, or an ability to draw on past experiences, or to fix situations that are broken.     

Whatever your strengths are, the test identifies them.

How does Gallup tell you to use your strengths?

What I love most about Gallup's philosophy is that they don't believe in expending time and energy to fix weaknesses.  We're taught in American society to believe that: that if we just try hard enough, we can be great at anything.  Gallup says that that just doesn't hold up, and they're right.  I'm never going to win a gold medal in the Olympic marathon no matter how hard I try.  Yes, you can get better at anything.  But if it's a weakness, something that you don't have the innate talent for and almost certainly wouldn't enjoy doing all the time, don't bother.  It's not worth it.  Gallup argues that it is much more effective and gratifying to spend that time learning to maximize your strengths. 

Why is this exciting for teachers?

One of the criticisms of the StrengthsFinder book (you buy the book and get an access code to take the test online) is that once you learned your strengths, there wasn't much advice about what to actually do with them. But "Teach With Your Strengths: How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students" lets you take the same test, then tells you how you can apply those strengths in your teaching and your career, with examples of how great teachers are putting each of the particular strengths to work. 

If you're a teacher or a counselor, I think it's a great read.

For private counselors: You’re marketing all the time

EnvelopeThis is the envelope I got from AAA yesterday.  So, why are they yelling at me?  I've been a AAA customer for 20 years.  Have I not always paid on time? 

People often ask me how we do our marketing at Collegewise, and when they do, they usually want to know about ads, speaking engagements, mailings, and other traditional ways of getting your name out to people.

But it's important to remember that when you're a private counselor, you're marketing all the time.  The way you answer the phone is marketing.  Your outgoing voice mail is marketing.  The tone of your email, the directions to your office, the way you write a to-do list for a student, your out-of-office email reply when you're at a conference, the wording of your invoices, the way you use your materials, whether or not you seem genuinely happy to see people when they arrive for appointments, and yes, what the outside of your envelope says–it's all marketing.

How hard would it be for AAA to do something else?

Envelope2

For private counselors: how to build a (better) website

If you're a private counselor hoping to grow your business, you've probably thought about building (or have already built) a website.  The good news is that the rules for making good websites for small businesses have changed.  You don't need to
spend thousands of dollars to build a one  You don't need flash
animation.  You don't even need to be fancy (Google is the most popular
website in the universe and it has a ridiculously simple
homepage). 

But the bad news is that it if you don't give people exactly what information they came to find, and make it easy for them to find it, you're going to lose them.  Today's web surfers have short attention spans, and most people aren't going to spend ten minutes on your site trying to find what they need to know.  They'll spend maybe a minute and then move on.  So if you're looking to build, or improve, your website, make sure you make it easy
for people to find the answers to these five questions:

1.  Who are
you?

It's surprising how many private counselors have websites
that continuously use words like "we" or "us" but never come right out and say who's actually helping the kids.  Instead, they say things like, "Our expert advisers have a wealth of experience and have
guided countless students to admission to the nation's finest
universities."  What does that even mean?  Who are you?  If I enroll my kid, who is he going to be working with? 

If you
don't feel comfortable putting your name and a real bio on your website, you might consider not having a website at all.  Instead tell people who you really are.  Be proud of your background, even if you're still relatively new to this profession.  And don't say "We" if you
really mean "Me."  There's no shame in working by yourself especially if you're
good.  Families don't care if you're a big company or a one-person shop. 
They just want the right counselor for their kid.   

2.  What
do you do?

Be clear about what services you offer and what kind of student tends to match well with you.  Are you good with kids who have learning disabilities?  Do you know a lot about athletic recruiting?  Are you particularly knowledgeable about a few specific colleges?  Don't try to sound like you can help everybody (none of us can).  Instead, come right out and tell people what they can hire you to help with, what you do well, and maybe even what you don't do. 

3.  Where are
you located?

We got this one wrong on our own website for years.  We made people navigate all the way to the "contact us" portion of our website to find out where our offices were.  Big mistake.  Put your office location(s) on your homepage. Tell people right away where they'll need to go to work with you.  Don't worry about losing customers because of geography.  If that's going to be an issue for a family, you might as well tell them upfront; don't make them call you to find out what "Greater Los Angeles area" means.          

4.  How do I contact you?

Do you have an office phone
number?  An email address?  Do you care which one people use?  Don't
make people sift through your website to figure out how to get in touch
with you.  Make your contact information blatant and easy to find.  Put
it (or a link to it) on every page. 

5.  What do I do next if
I'm interested?

Don't put your prospective customer in the awkward position of having to contact you to ask what the next step is.  Come right out and tell them what you want them to do.  Do you offer an introductory consultation?  How do they schedule one?  And don't make the visitor fill out a long online form to request an appointment.  That's like forcing potential suitors to complete a long questionnaire before they can even ask you what your name is.  If the information really is important to you, have them fill it out after they've scheduled the appointment.        

Everything else on a website is secondary and probably more important to you than it is to your potential customer.  You can always add more pages and information later if you get repeated questions about testimonials, a newsletter or whether or not you have a blog.  Give your visitors what they’re looking for when they first find your section of cyberspace, and more of them will become your customers later.  

PS:  I've
learned a lot about websites and marketing from Seth Godin.  If you
want to have an effective website up as soon as possible for very little
money, check out his blog post here.  If you've built a website and want to make
it better, check out his book "The Big Red Fez."

PPS:  Our own website could do an even better job of making it easy for our visitors to find the information they want.  So we're making those changes now.  I'll share them here later next month when we're finished.