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 @collegewise.com, not @gmail.com.  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.


How Collegewise counselors take it or leave it

Whenever a Collegewise counselor comes across news, a helpful website, or other information she finds useful, we send it to each other in an email with the subject line, “Take it or leave it” (“TIOLI” for short).

Originally Arun’s brainchild, the idea was that whenever one of us came across anything small or big that made our counseling lives a little easier, we’d share it in a “Take it or leave it” email.  TIOLIs remove email pressure.  If I find something interesting, I can share it with impunity.  If you like what I’m sending, great–“take it” and use it.  If you don’t find it interesting, “leave it” and delete it.  No hard feelings…for either of us.

Here’s an example.

Katie went to an Ursinus College info session yesterday.  She came back, did a quick write up about what she learned, and sent us all an email entitled “TIOLI: Ursinus College.”  Now I know that 90% of Ursinus pre-med students with a 3.3 GPA or above get into medical school.  I’ll take it, Katie. Thank you!

Other TIOLIs have shared everything from how we can use our work email (through Google Apps) to send text messages to our students, to an article about how to make your Outlook function better, to “The Dirty Thirty” most common grammatical mistakes, to how to handle the question when a prospect asks how we’re different from the competition.

The most useful part of the TIOLI is that all of our counselors have it at their disposal.  It’s a tool we all use, and it makes it that much easier to share information with each other.  It’s so easy to do.  Ask your colleagues if they’d like to try TIOLIs.  Maybe kick it off with a good take-it-or-leave-it of your own?

So there you go–take it or leave it.

A pep talk for counselors

Whether you're a high school counselor or a private counselor, you've probably experienced some combination of the following stresses:

Not enough time to focus on the admissions part of your job.  Working too many hours.  Too many letters of recommendation to write.  Parents with unrealistic expectations–for their kids, for the college admissions process, or for you.  Kids you want to see succeed who are struggling because they don't have the money or a stable home life.  Too many kids to to help.  Not enough hours to do it.  Not enough recognition for everything that you do.  Not enough sleep.  Too much worry.  Too much pressure.  Wondering if you're doing any good.  Wondering if people appreciate what you're doing.  Wondering how much longer you can do it.  

On those days where you can feel the stress affecting you, when you know you're just not as eager to face the day as you have been in the past, please remember something.

I don't believe there is any job that is more important than helping kids achieve their educational dreams. 

There are other jobs that are just as important–I'm not devaluing the likes of social workers, community organizers or scientist who are trying to cure cancer.  But I do not believe there is a profession that makes more of a difference, that has a bigger impact on kids, families and our society, than helping students find their way to college.   

If you're helping kids realize their college dreams, you never have to go home at night wondering if you did anything worthwhile with your day.  The longer you do it, the more kids there will be who got to college with your help, who found great schools they didn't know about, who better understood the application and financial aid process or were accepted to the college they'd dreamed of attending in part because of help that you gave them. 

And there will be some kids who simply would not have made it to college at all without you.  Kids who never could have done it on their own and didn't have other people to rely on.  Those kids will go on to be college graduates in the world, and they'll be there because of you. 

There are a lot of dedicated counselors out there who work very hard and do it all for the kids.  If you're one of them, thank you.  And keep at it.  It's too important for you not to.

For high school counselors: How to teach families more by sharing less

As counselors, we're all teachers, too.  We educate families every day.  Most high school counselors I've met do a lot to teach their families how to prepare for, apply, get accepted and pay for college.  It's a crucial job with an unreasonable amount of information to convey.  But I think the best way to teach families–not just give them information, but to actually get them learn and to use it–might be surprising. 

Share less.

I've done hundreds of college admissions speeches at high schools.  But I realized this year that when I share ten college application tips with seniors and their parents, while most families (hopefully) enjoy the speech, they don't remember the tips when they leave.  They remember one or two of them, but they don't recall all the advice about how to put them into action.  They remember the story I told about the Collegewise kid who wrote her essay about losing all those elections, but they don't remember why I shared it.  So while I gave an entertaining speech that people seemed to like, I haven't really taught them anything (they didn't learn it if they can't go home and do it).   

So I've been trying something new.  Before I do a speech, I figure out the 2-3 most important lessons I want the audience to take away from it.  Everything other than those 2-3 main points is secondary and either gets cut out or used to support one of the main points.  It's hard to delete information because everything feels important.  But I do it anyway and focus on the upside–that my most important points are going to get the majority of the attention.

Then I spend the entire speech selling those 2-3 main points. I share stories about Collegewise kids and parents, what they did, and what happened as a result.  I try to paint a vivid picture of what will happen if they follow these 2-3 pieces of advice.  And I give them marching orders–I tell them how to put it in action when they leave.  The feedback I've been getting so far has been great. 

I'm not suggesting that you dumb down your information; it's just the opposite.  You're picking the points that deserve the most attention and then carving out time to give it to them.  I don't need 45 minutes to explain what it means when a college has a January 1 deadline.  Instead, one of my points might be, "Don't let anyone care more about your college applications than you do."  That one idea lends itself to several stories about kids taking responsibility for the college applications, not allowing parents to fill out the application or write the essays, and following up with schools to make sure the application is complete.  But they all lead back to the main point that kids are the ones going to college, so they should care about it more than everyone else in their life.  If families just remember that one point, they end up making better decisions throughout the application process. 

Here are a few ways I think a high school counselor might try this:

  • If you write a newsletter, instead of writing 12 articles on different topics, pick the 2-3 most important things you want families to know at this time of year, and use your newsletter to teach them.  A family that learns and does those three things won't get mad at you for cutting out the article about good questions to ask on a campus visit.  And they'll be even more likely to read the next issue because what you taught them was so valuable.
  • If your office is hosting a "senior parent night" at your school, what are the most important actions you want your audience to take after they leave?  Do you want them to start their college searches, begin their applications, utilize the services your school provides?  Pick the most important ones and use the speech to sell them on it.
  • If you keep a webpage of helpful college planning resources, trim it down and play favorites.  Giving them 18 links to different websites with information about financial aid and scholarships isn't as helpful as telling them which 2-3 you and your counseling team think are the best. 
  • If you attend a conference, take great notes during the sessions, pick the 2-3 best ones you attended, and do a write up for your families and fellow counselors.   
  • You can also use the "less rule" to help set families' expectations of how your office can help them.  If you encourage them to "utilize your counseling office," they don't have a clear picture of what that means.  Promise less, and they'll utilize you more effectively.  That sounds like this.

"We're here to try to answer all of your college-related questions.  In particular, here are three areas where we feel we can be of great benefit to our students."

Telling them everything might not be as valuable as teaching them something.  As usual, your mileage may vary.  But it's been working well for me and I thought I'd share.  I hope it helps.   


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:


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.

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

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.