Redesigning our testing calendar

I've been working (again) with Arun Ponnusamy from Open Road Education on several projects we'll be rolling out together over the next six months.  One of them is to work together with our counselors to improve the Collegewise materials, and to start licensing those materials to high schools and private counselors. 

Here's an example of something we've been working on.  Every Collegewise student gets a customized testing calendar to plan when to take the PSAT, SAT, ACT, etc.  Here is a screenshot of that document with Arun's comments:


Counselors typically circle the chosen test dates and make a copy of the document for the student and parent.  Arun pointed out that if we made all the blank spaces for data like "Name" and "Date" electronic fields, a counselor could save each student's calendar as a PDF and then email it to the student and parent.  We also decided to move the PSAT section to the top since it comes first chronologically, and to insert links that would allow students to click and be taken directly to the testing registration sites. 

Here's a shot of the the first try at our revamped version.  


We're also working on second page with information on fee waivers, test prep options, Score Choice, advice on SAT vs ACT, advice on how to send scores, etc.  There's more to do, but it's a good reminder that everything we make can always be made a little better.  

For counselors and companies: the importance of the first day on the job

People talk a lot about how employees need to make a great impression on the boss when they begin a new job.  I think it's even more important for the organization to make a great first impression on the new employee.

The last job I had before I started Collegewise got off to a bad start.  I'd moved across the country to take the job, and when I arrived for my first day of work, my boss was in meetings the entire day.  I had no computer, no phone, and no access pass to get to the meeting rooms on the second floor.  It took me almost a week to get all of the things I needed to actually start doing any work. 

I had been excited about the opportunity, but the first day–and the entire first week–showed me that I was working for a disorganized company and a frenzied boss.  That first week killed my excitement and any motivation I had.  So it's not surprising that we do first days a lot differently at Collegewise. 

New employees at Collegewise arrive to work with everything they need to get started.  The desk has been stocked with office supplies.  The computer and phone have been set-up.  The office is decorated college posters, and we get them a coffee mug from their collegiate alma mater. 

They have keys and a corporate card, and their business cards have already been printed.  We have all the forms they need to fill out ready.  We give them a Collegewise jacket and make sure their fridge is stocked with water and drinks.   

We give them our version of an employee handbook we call "Life at Collegewise" where we talk about everything from how to expense a trip to where the best lunch spots are near the office.  We proudly announce their arrival to all of our current families so they know who the new face in the office is.  Then we start them on our 40-hour training program to learn how we do college counseling.  And we've written a 14-page guideline called "Preparing for Your New Employee's First Day" to help our other offices do the same for their new employees. 

When you make your new employees feel welcome and give them everything they need to start doing good work, it shows them how much you pay attention to details.  But more importantly, it communicates that you expect big things from them, that you have expectations that they'll start making contributions right away.  Now any good employee will want to show you that your expectations haven't been misplaced.

Sure, it can't stop there.  You've got to make sure your employees have great second, and third and 303rd days, too.  But while you can't control everything that will happen during an employee's tenure, you have total control over the first day.  So why not make the most of it. 

Tip for counselors: how to get the most out of a conference

The counselors from our Irvine office are attending the annual WACAC conference this week.  Good counselors and admissions officers spend a lot of time at conferences, so it's important to feel like it's time and money well spent.  Here are a few tips we've picked up during our conferencing years that might help.

1. Don’t be afraid to pick a session based on the speakers rather than on the subject.

Some of the best sessions we’ve ever attended at conferences discussed topics that had surprisingly little to do with our jobs.  But we know when someone like Bruce Poch from Pomona College or Paul Kanarek from The Princeton Review speaks, we always learn something.  Great presenters make for great sessions.  So don’t be afraid to occasionally pick a great presenter over a session whose subject matter might be more relevant. 

2. Try to have meals with people you haven’t met. 

If you’re here with colleagues like we are, it’s easy to huddle with familiar faces during the group meals.  But there are a lot of great people to meet here, and meals are a perfect time to do it.  In fact, some counselors are here without colleagues and will welcome the company.  So get to know new people during the meals. 

3. Attend the social events.
We do love a good conference social event.  It’s a great time to relax and have fun with both current colleagues and new friends who know that several hundred counselors and admissions officers coming together to discuss education makes for one heck of a party.   So no matter how inviting a quiet night in your room may be, spend a little time, well, socializing at the socials.

4. Be on the lookout for tips, information and advice you can use when you get back.
This is something we learned from conference veterans.  It’s great when you can leave a conference excited about new ideas that you can implement into your job.  Experienced counselors know this, and they spend most of the conference on the lookout for those insights.   They enter every session hungry for one piece of information, or one suggestion they can take back and use.  They think not just about what they’re learning, but also what to actually do with that knowledge when they get back.  So feed off that tendency.  Ask questions.  Write down your ideas as soon as you think of them.  Talk with your colleagues not just about what you learned at a great session, but also how you’re going to apply that knowledge back on the job.

5. Remember that you’re here for you, too.
We all go to conferences for the students that we serve.  But it’s also important to use conferences as a chance to have fun, to commiserate with colleagues about the challenges and joys of our jobs, and to recharge our batteries so we can do an even better job with our students when we get back.  If that means that you skip one session to connect over a beer with some new counselor friends you’ve just made, we think that’s OK.  

Advanced essay training

Last night, three of our veteran "essay specialists" came back for some advanced training in the art of helping students find and tell their best stories, and how to do it ethically so we don't take over the process.  If you work with students to help them with college essays, here are a few of the tips we taught.

1. Before you jump in and brainstorm, spend five minutes getting the kid to relax a little bit. 

Dentists do this before they start drilling.  They ask you questions about where you’re vacationing.  We do the same thing with kids.  Before you start asking a student which activity meant the most to him, just chat for five minutes.  It will help the kid relax and be more open about his stories.   

2. Always ask the kid if he’s got any ideas about what he wants to write. 

It's the student's essay, not ours.  Just because we have a great process to help kids find their stories doesn't mean we should ignore whatever ideas a student already has. So ask. 

3. Don’t just sit in silence while you read the student’s responses. 

Our students type long responses to our 20 brainstorming questions.  It takes a while for us to read through them before we discuss them.  But while we read, we don't want the student to feel like a teacher is grading her test right in front of her.  So ask questions, or even just say, “Oh, that’s good.”  Give some feedback as you go to let the student know he's doing fine.

4.  Don’t hold back when you like one of their responses.
Enthusiasm is contagious.  A student will feel encouraged when you get excited and say, “What a minute.  You're on the football team AND you play the tuba?!?  I've never heard of that before.  You've got to tell me more about that." 

5.    “Forget the essay.  It’s just you and me talkin’ now…”

If a student seems reserved, or if you can sense that he's more enthusiastic about a topic than he's letting on, take the essay reins off and say,

"Forget the essay.  It's just you and me talkin' now…” 

Physically set your notes down when you say it.  Watch how much more enthusiastic and relaxed the student gets.

6.  When you see an example of great writing in their brainstorming responses, highlight it, show it to them, and explain why it’s good. 

We want students to understand what good writing looks like.  When you're reading their brainstorming responses and you see examples of good detail, or funny lines, or just a great turn of phrase, circle it, point it out and explain why it's good.  Then tell him, “That’s what I want you to do in your essays!”

7. Ask the student to explain the stories back to you. 

We don't want to tell the story for a student.  So rather than say, "In the second paragraph, you can describe how your coach got angry when the starting fullback quit, and how he asked you to take his place."  Instead, ask the student, "So, tell me again what happened when that player quit…" Make them tell the story and recall their own details.

8. Warn kids that “Track changes” makes things look a lot worse than they are.

We love the "Track changes" feature in Microsoft Word.  But most students are used to associating markings on an essay with errors.  The first time a kid opens a draft with changes marked, it looks a lot worse than it is, especially given that even your positive feedback looks like red-penned editing.  So warn a student.  Tell him, "Don't be alarmed when you see the draft.  The track changes looks like a blood bath but a lot of what I've written is to comment on what you did well!"

9. Don’t be afraid to use the “Show, don’t tell” concept in your comments.

We tell kids that good writing is descriptive.  So are good comments from editors!  Sometimes the best way to explain something to a student is to show him what you mean, but use examples that the student couldn’t just lift and use himself.

    For example, a student writes:

"Now as a senior, I am taking AP psychology and I find myself engrossed in the course.  The “theory of the fundamental attribution error” and the “foot-in-the-door phenomenon” are now phrases that have been incorporated into my daily vocabulary." 

    And the editor comments:

"Great example!  Can you give one or two more specific examples of how you use or think about these concepts?  It’s more believable if you say something specific like (and I’m totally making this up because I don’t know what these concepts mean AT ALL!), 'I used to think that the reason my brother lied to other kids I and told them I wet the bed until I was 12 was just because he was mean.  Now I know that he’s not only mean, but he’s also possibly suffering from fundamental attribution error.'" 

If you're trying to get a soccer player to give you more detail, write a sample for him…using a golfer or a poker player as an example.  Just don't use a soccer playing example because the kid will want to use what you've written. 

10.    Don’t forget to insert praise in your comments, too.

We're not just editors here; we're also teachers.  If all you do is point out what needs to be changed, improved or revised in an essay, it's discouraging for the student.  So always include some sincere praise.  Show the kid what he did right.  Insert the occasional “I love that line” or “Good example!” into your comments. It will keep the student engaged and leave him more inclined to accept your constructive criticism. 

Counselor tip: Try this at your next student/parent meeting

When we know there's a lot of material to cover in an appointment with one of our Collegewise families, we'll start the meeting by saying,

"I have my list of things I want to cover in the next hour.  But before we start, what are the things you want to make sure we talk about today?" 

Then we write down whatever they say on our agenda.  If we think the topic would be better handled at a different time, we can say so, explain why, and ask if they'd be OK tabling it for a future meeting. 

Starting meetings like this helps you get a sense of just how much you'll need to cover in the allotted time.  It also lets the other people know that you're not just here for you; you're here for them, too–in fact, the first thing you're doing is asking what they want to talk about. 

They'll know you're not just going to wait until the end of the meeting to ask what questions they have. 

It sets a good tone of collaboration for the meeting and makes everyone feel comfortable that they'll be heard.  You'll know right away if there are any contentious subjects that you need to address. 

And most importantly, it demonstrates that you're prepared for the meeting because you've already composed a list of the things you want to discuss.  They'll know you're not just winging it and that they shouldn't be, either.     

The importance of asking kids, “How are you doing?”

About this time every year, we start to see it on our students' faces.  They're tired, especially the juniors.  The classes, activities, AP tests and SAT prep start to take their toll on even the hardest of workers. 

So when our students come in for their meetings in May and June, the first thing we ask almost all of them is, "How are you doin'?"  And we ask in a way that shows we really want to know how they're holding up, how they're feeling and whether or not things like soccer and drama and jazz band are still fun.  We still get to all the college planning stuff.  But first we want to check in. 

I don't want to be an alarmist here, but kids today are the most overworked, over scheduled and stressed out of any generation before them.  Hard work and high goals are good things.  And part of being successful means handling a reasonable degree of stress.  But nothing is worth sacrificing sleep, sanity or happiness, especially when you're seventeen. 

If you're a parent or a counselor, don't make your next question to your student about the SAT or college or whether or not they're ready for finals.  Instead, asking them how they're doing.  Really listen to their answer.  And remind them that their best effort is good enough regardless of what the outcome is. 

For independent college counselors: be undeniably good

Steve Martin said it best on the Charlie Rose show:

“When people ask me how do you make it in show business or whatever, what I always tell them–and nobody ever takes note of it ‘cuz it’s not the answer they wanted to hear–what they want to hear is, ‘Here’s how you get an agent.  Here’s how you write a script.  Here’s how you do this…  But I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’  If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’, people are going to come to you. It’s much easier doing it that way than going to cocktail parties.”

That’s good advice for anyone trying to make it as an independent (private) college counselor, too.

I mention this because some independent counselors I meet at conferences lament that admissions officers won’t talk to them. They complain that high school counselors don’t want to work in tandem with them.  They want to know how we market ourselves, where we find potential clients, and how we get speaking engagements.  A lot of those particular counselors are looking for shortcuts where they’re aren’t any.

The independent counselors who are full every year, who love what they’re doing and have raving fans, who are liked and trusted and admired in the profession, they got that way by being undeniably good.  That’s the starting point.  Do a great job for your families.  Inhale college admissions information and share it with other counselors.  Attend conferences.  Do sessions at conferences.  Tour colleges.  Read all the books about admissions.  Read all the press about admissions.  Make families happy and keep your promises.  That’s how the best counselors–and there are lots of them–do it.

Stop looking for ways to get people to pay attention to you.  Instead, start being so good that they don’t have any choice but to notice.

How to help kids choose which college to attend

April is a great month here at Collegewise as we get to sit down with our seniors, discuss their college options, and help them decide where to spend the next four years.  If you’re a counselor, a teacher, a parent or anyone a senior trusts enough to ask your advice about which college to attend, here are few things we do that might be helpful.

1.    We let the kids do the talking.

A lot of seniors receive generous portions of unsolicited advice from too many sources about where they should go to college.  We think we do these students a favor by asking them what they think, being quiet, and really listening to their answers.

This also helps us uncover the real concerns kids have.

A lot of kids who are struggling with the final decision are actually struggling with things they haven’t revealed—or even acknowledged—yet, like a fear of leaving home, a fear of not measuring up to the other students, or a fear of being unhappy with their choice.  And since most kids won’t just come right out and tell us what they’re worried about, we have to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening, like therapists.  A therapist doesn’t just tell someone five minutes into a session, “Your problem is that your sister makes you feel unworthy, so stop talking to her!”  She asks a lot of questions and guides the person to come to her own realizations. That’s how we approach these meetings.

2.    If a student asks a question for which we can’t give a straight answer, we reverse it. 

Students often ask questions about their choices to which there are no real answers, like “Isn’t Georgetown better for law school than Yale?”  Those kinds of questions are often not the real source of indecision for the kid.  So we reverse them.

“Wow, law school?  That’s great you’re thinking that far ahead.  Do you want to pick your college based on something you might do four years from now?”

Don’t be surprised if the student says something like, “Well, my dad’s a lawyer, and he really wants me to go to Georgetown.”  Turns out the original question had nothing to do with law school.  And if you’d gone into a lengthy explanation of how the assumption of Georgetown being better than Yale is flawed, you’d have been spinning your wheels and avoiding the real issue.

3. We think it’s more important to prevent a kid from making a bad decision than it is to convince him to make what we think is the right one. 

It’s not our responsibility (or our place) to tell any kid where he should to go to college.  Any student who is mature enough to go to college is mature enough to make the final decision.  Our responsibility is to be good listeners, to give kids any information they need, and of course, to speak up if our counseling instincts say that the kid’s about to make a terrible mistake.

I’m not saying we won’t share with a student which choice we think would be best and why—that’s our job.  In fact, I once had a student say, “What I really want you to do is just tell me where you think I should go to college.”  So I did.  But we think it’s more important to help students make informed choices (and avoid bad ones) than it is to make the decision for them.

4.   We don’t debate.

The more you argue with a teenager, the more a lot of them will dig their heals in.  When a student says, “UCLA students are a lot friendlier than students at NYU,” that’s obviously a huge generalization with little factual merit.  But we don’t debate the point. The kid doesn’t want to debate with us. So instead, we ask him what made the UCLA students seem so friendly.  We keep him talking.  The less we push, the more likely the student is to ask for (and listen to) whatever perspective we have to share.

5.  We don’t try to minimize concerns about the school, especially if they’re valid.

No college is perfect.  So we don’t try to minimize valid concerns about any school.  Instead, we face them head on and talk about how students on campus deal with them.

Let’s say a student tells us, “I like Gonzaga, but I’m worried I’ll get bored in Spokane.”

That’s a valid concern.  Kids at Gonzaga love it there, but if they wanted exciting city life in college, they would have gone somewhere else.

So rather than try to convince that kid that Spokane is lively, we’ll just say,

“You’re right.  Kids at Gonzaga will tell you there’s not much to do in Spokane.  But they don’t care.  They didn’t go to Gonzaga for city life.   Do you think the city life is important to you?”

Now that kid gets to explore the real issue: does he love what other students love about Gonzaga enough to ignore that he won’t be in Chigaco or New York or Los Angeles for college?

Kids often say to us, “I worry about whether or not USC is going to be safe enough.”

USC seems to go out of its way to talk about how safe it is.  No, you’re not going to get kidnapped from your dorm.  But c’mon.  It’s in a big city, and not a particularly nice part of that city.  So we face that concern head on.

“Yeah, I get that.  The campus might be safe, but the surrounding area, like those near a lot of colleges, is not.  USC students understand that they have to be smart about their safety.  They know it’s not a good idea to walk alone late at night.  How do you feel about that?”

Face it head on.

If a student says, “I heard UCLA puts three kids in dorms that are made for two.  I wouldn’t have to deal with that at Pomona…”

We respond…

“You’re right.  UCLA packs them in.  Most kids at UCLA don’t seem to care about that.  They tell us that they hardly spend time in their dorm room because they’re too busy doing a hundred different things on campus and in Westwood.   Does that sound like you?”

The reason we do this is to show the student that no college is perfect.  The happiest students on college campuses love their schools in spite of the inherent flaws.  There is nothing anyone can do to make Spokane lively, USC 100% safe, or UCLA small and homey.  Don’t try to minimize the concern.  That’s just wasting time.

As long as you ask a lot of questions, listen, avoid debating and try to help a student uncover their real concerns about their college choices, you’ll be doing a good job for that kid.

Recommended Reading for High School Counselors

When our counselors go through the Collegewise training program, we read and discuss a number of books about college admissions.  Here are a few of our favorites.

Admissions ConfAdmissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process
by Rachel Toor

Toor  takes you along with her during her three-year stint as an admissions officer at Duke University.  I include this book in our training because it shows that admissions officers are just regular people, not stuffy educators.  Toor took a job in admissions because she thought it would be more fun than her editing job. She admits to having a soft spot for artsy kids and reveals that she argued most forcefully for those students she felt like she could hang out with.  It's not a book about how to get into Duke; it's more of a revealing account of what it's like to work in a highly selective college's admissions office.

A is for A is for Admission:  The Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges by Michele A. Hernandez

Michelle Hernandez is not universally loved in the college admissions world (If you'd like to know why, here's an interview on NPR), but I still appreciate that she comes right out and describes exactly how she and her colleagues at Dartmouth actually evaluated students.  It's also refreshing to hear someone else say that a student could scoop ice cream during the summer and still get into a selective college.  Her section on letters of recommendation is especially good.  Though unless you  majored in statistics, you might want to just skip over the section on the "academic  index."  It's complicated and not terribly interesting (to me, at least).

CollegeUnranked College Uranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, edited by Lloyd Thacker
I love this book’s mission—to help students re-take control of a college admissions process that seems to have spun out of control.  The advice comes in the form of short essays from admissions officers themselves.  Some are better pieces than others, but it's a good reminder of something we've learned after doing this for over 10 years–admissions officers are mostly good people who want to do the right thing by kids even if they can't admit all of them.   


 TheGatekeepers The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premiere College by Jacques Steinberg

Steinberg (who now writes the admissions blog "The Choice,") observed the admissions process at Wesleyan University and wove it into what I think is an entertaining read.  You'll learn a lot about admissions, and don't be surprised if you get sucked into the story.  Waiting to find out who gets in is like waiting to find out who the killer is at the end of a taut suspense novel.  And one of the applicants profiled went on to found


HarvardSchmarvardHarvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That’s Best for You by Jay Mathews

The title pretty much says it all.  Jay Mathews offers a good dose of perspective and common sense to the process, and even gives readers a list of 100 great colleges worth considering.  I love his honesty about everything from the realities of the waitlist to the search letter scam where kids get warm and inviting letters from selective colleges based on nothing but PSAT scores (which aren't even used during the admissions process).  Jay's also a parent of two kids who've gone on to college and has especially good perspective for moms and dads of the college  bound.  

OnWriting On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld

It was written nearly twenty years ago, but the chapter about overused essays entitled, "Danger: Sleepy Prose Ahead" is worth the price of the book.  I'll put it this way.  #8 on his list is "Pet Death" of which he says,

"Maudlin descriptions of animal demise, always written by the fluffball.  'As I watched Button's life ebb away, I came to value the important things in the world.'"

C'mon.  You've got to get this one. 

An idea for high school counselors

Here’s my crazy idea of the month for high school counselors.  It will let you get all the necessary information to your students and parents faster, cheaper and more effectively.  And since most high school counselors have way too much work to do and not enough time to do it, this might actually add some time back into your day.

Start a blog for your counseling office.

People tend to think of blogs like online diaries.  But a blog is really just a website that you can update easily, and it could become the one place in your school that people know to go to for information about college.  Here’s my vision.

1.  Go to Typepad and sign up for one of their services. The cheapest option is $8.95 per month which will let you do everything you need to do except allow more than one person to write blog posts.  If you want that option, it will cost a total of $14.95 a month.  Pick a color scheme that matches your school’s.  And make sure to enable RSS feeds, which will allow people to subscribe to your blog.  Even better, offer to buy lunch for a nice student with blog knowledge and have him or her do it for you.  It will take less than 30 minutes for a teenage blogger to do this for you (and to explain to a newbie what all the blog fuss is about).

2.  Tell parents and students that this blog will be the first place you’ll share information about anything college or counseling related.   Of course, you should only say this if you’re serious, so you could also try this for six months, see how it goes, and then tell everyone.

3.  When you have anything to share with families, write it on the blog.  Handing back PSAT scores next week?  Announce it on the blog.  Notre Dame is coming to visit the campus to do a presentation?  Blog it.  College night?  Time to schedule classes for next year?  SAT deadline is coming up?  Blog ’em.

4.  Invite families to subscribe to the blog (that’s what the RSS feed was for) so that every time you post something, they’ll be notified.

5.  If you’re going to be away at a conference or closed for the holidays, mention it on the blog and your families will know.

Now any time you’ve got important information to share, you or your colleagues can post it right away.  No need to rely on someone else to upload it to the counseling website.  No need to send out emails or print flyers.

Once you’ve done those basics (and depending on your workload), you could also use the blog to bring even more value to your counseling program.  Here are a few ideas:

  • When you have a counseling event–like college night or PSAT scores-back or a financial aid presentation, take photos at the event and put them on the blog along with a short write-up of what was covered.  You could also upload any handouts from the evening.  Those who missed it can still get the information, but they’ll see from the photos just how many people took the time to show up (sometimes a little subtle guilt can be a good thing).
  • When you attend a conference, do a quick write-up of any interesting things you learned and post them on the blog.  I think it will show families just how much effort you’re extending on their behalf.
  • If you read a relevant article in the press, or an entry on another blog that you think is worth sharing, blog it.
  • If you add a new person to the counseling staff, snap a photo, write a bio and introduce them to families on the blog.
  • Offer up timely servings of your expertise for students and parents.  What would you like every student and parent to know about how to choose summer activities, or how to plan a campus visit, or how to handle college rejections?  Blog it once and you can post it again next year when the new class is ready for the advice. You should only need to write a detailed description of your school’s letter of recommendation process once.  Do it once and post again next year for the new class.
  • After you’ve done this for awhile, you’ll have lots of great write-ups with tips and advice to share with families.  Then you won’t always need to keep generating as much new material.  Instead, you could group links to appropriate articles together and post them at the right times.  For example, when college application season begins, post an entry with all of your relevant past articles that the new senior class needs to read, like this.

Sure, there are lots of reasons you could argue not to do it.  Not enough time, don’t know enough about blogging, families won’t use it, etc.  But most high school counselors I know are overworked, and still always trying to find ways to more for their students.  If you’re open to trying something new that might actually let you do more in less time, this might be a low risk venture.

If you’re already doing this at your school, I’d love to hear about how it’s going.